Most men who retire as president of a department store that was a household word in Fort Worth for ninety-nine years would be remembered as “the Merchandise Man.”
Not Oscar Monnig.
He is remembered as “the Meteorite Man.”
For a half-century he was the go-to guy when people saw something in the sky and wanted an explanation.
Monnig’s interest in what’s going on “up there” began in childhood. When he was seven he was fascinated by—and worried about—the red star in the sky. It was Mars.
A few years later he prepared eagerly to observe an eclipse of the sun, only to be disappointed by clouds.
In 1920 Monnig graduated from Fort Worth High School as valedictorian.
In 1925 he earned a law degree from the University of Texas. His interest in astronomy continued, but his “only formal scientific training,” he later recalled, was signing up for an astronomy course that was cancelled for lack of enrollment.
He practiced law three years but became disillusioned.
“I thought of turning to being a professional scientist, but it was a poor life then,” Monnig told the Star-Telegram in an interview in 1983. And he lacked the math and physics background needed for astronomy.
In 1928 he joined the bookkeeping department in the wholesale division of Monnig’s and worked for the family business the rest of his career, serving as president from 1974 to 1980, when the business was sold. He had joined the company just before the Great Depression. But the depression had a silver lining for Oscar Monnig: “It gave me more spare time to become immersed in astronomy.”
For example, he founded the Texas Observers astronomy club, and between 1931 and 1947 he published a monthly astronomy newsletter, the Texas Observers Bulletin.
By 1931 Monnig was becoming known as an authority. That year west Texas lobbied to be the site of an observatory funded by the will of W. J. McDonald. West Texas, as Monnig predicted, would get its observatory. And fifty years later it would play a role in an honor bestowed upon the Meteorite Man.
Monnig became interested in meteorites—meteors that reach the Earth—in 1932 when he drove to Canada in a second attempt to witness a solar eclipse. Alas, again clouds obscured the sky at the last minute.
But on the trip home from Canada his interest in meteorites was aroused when he visited several museums where meteorites were on display. Most museums don’t actively seek out meteorites, he said in 1983. Museums wait for someone to bring in meteorites. He realized that “there must be a lot more left” that haven’t been found. “I came back deciding to find some. I wanted some to hold. All that were in the museums were under glass.”
That’s when he began collecting. Eventually he amassed one of the most significant private collections in the world: three thousand specimens from four hundred different meteorites.
Monnig traveled as part of his job with the family business. He left his card with farmers and asked them to contact him if they found heavy rocks.
Monnig paid $1 a pound for meteorites—more than museums were willing to pay. For some Dust Bowl farmers during the Depression, Monnig’s payment for a darned old rock they found in their field was the largest check they received all year.
The sky detective gradually developed a search method.
Whenever he learned that people had seen a fireball, he and his associates fanned out, driving to the locations where the fireball was reported sighted. They interviewed witnesses. Each bit of information—color, direction, distance, sounds—was a clue that helped Monnig deduce the path of the meteorite and where it fell to Earth.
“You really don’t hunt meteorites as a rule,” Monnig said. “You hunt people.”
In 1939 Monnig was on his way to the new observatory when meteorites fell near Houston. He calculated where they fell, and samples he acquired were displayed at the new public library.
Three years later a fireball was seen across a wide swath of west Texas. Monnig wrote an article about how he interviewed witnesses to calculate the path of the meteorite. (William Monnig III was Oscar’s nephew.)
After a fireball was seen Monnig relied on newspaper articles to find witnesses and even placed ads.
On one occasion, Monnig recalled in 1983, his friend Robert G. Brown saw a fireball and heard a detonation—a “thunderous roll” that usually can be heard from thirty to fifty miles from the fall.
The meteorite appeared to be headed toward Arkansas, so Monnig headed toward Sherman first, inquiring for anyone who had seen the flash. Next he went south of Bells in Grayson County, where reports helped him pinpoint the location near that town. Then Monnig and Brown went house to house looking for anyone who might have seen the meteor land. Monnig found a farmhouse where a chunk of the meteorite had hit the roof and fallen to the ground. He sent out circulars to homes in the area seeking other fragments. Before his search was complete, he had found five pieces.
“I know that country was covered with fragments. We put information in the newspaper and offered a reward.”
One of the carbonaceous chondrite meteorites found at Bells became one of the jewels of his collection.
John Williams, who in 1983 was director of the Omni Theater at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and himself a meteorite chaser, credited Monnig with several breakthroughs in gathering information from reluctant witnesses.
Williams said Monnig could get through to witnesses and communicate “his own sincerity and own interest.”
The Meteorite Man may have been an amateur, but he was a frequent speaker on astronomy and quoted often in newspapers when something was seen overhead.
And, of course, an expert on objects seen in the sky is going to be consulted about UFO sightings. Three years after the Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting in Washington state and the rumored UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico, UFOs (“flying saucers,” “flying bananas,” “flying dinner plate,” “soap bubble”) were reported over Texas. But Monnig theorized that people had seen the planet Venus.
In 1953 two meteorites from Monnig’s collection were displayed at TCU.
By 1976 Monnig’s collection contained hundreds of meteorites, and he began donating specimens to TCU.
Oscar’s father William Monnig had a school named after him.
Pshaw, Pa. That’s nothin’.
Son Oscar had an asteroid named after him.
On National Astronomy Day in 1983 Oscar Monnig was honored by the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and the government’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory: the Oscar E. Monnig main-belt asteroid, more formally “2780 Monnig.” It’s located in an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, orbiting the sun every 3.2 years.
Dr. Eleanor Helin, a planetary scientist at the JPL, said the Monnig asteroid is of the fourteenth magnitude of brightness, which means it cannot be seen with the naked eye but can be seen with a moderate-sized telescope. The asteroid is about five to six miles in diameter, Helin said.
The asteroid was first identified in 1981, and after calculations of its orbit were made, Helin’s asteroid survey team was able to look back at records to see if it had been sighted before.
“It’s very fitting,” she said, that 2780 Monnig was first sighted in 1952 by the McDonald Observatory.
The Meteorite Man died May 3, 1999. He is buried in Laurel Land.
Funding from his estate helped the Geology Department at TCU maintain his collection. In 2003 TCU opened the Oscar Monnig Meteorite Gallery. https://monnigmuseum.tcu.edu/