High Strangeness: The Powers Behind the Throne

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Powers Behind the Throne

The other day I got a nice letter from the daughter of someone I interviewed and quoted extensively in my J. Allen Hynek bio, The Close Encounters Man, and I'm still feeling really good about it.

I first came across the name William T. Powers when I was doing research in the archives at Northwestern University (NWU) in Evanston, IL, where Hynek taught for almost a quarter century. Although Hynek was usually (but not always) careful to maintain separation between his UFO activities and his teaching activities, so it was always interesting to see how much UFO-related material I could find in the NWU files. Seems Hynek was so indelibly associated with UFOs that that side of his career couldn't help but overflow into his academic work.
I also found this in the Northwestern archives. Go figure.

On one of my first visits to the NWU archives, I was looking through a file box filled with Hynek's correspondence, and I was amazed to find folder after folder filled with letters that had been sent to Hynek at NWU by people around the world who wanted to ask Hynek questions about UFOs or to share their personal stories of their involvement in the UFO phenomenon. This was early on in my research, mind you, so I was still getting used to the kinds of stories told by UFO witnesses. I was amazed at the length and detail of so many of these reports, many of which went on for a dozen or more hand-written pages, and many of which were rife with wild speculation and theorizing. After reading some of these letters, I fully expected Dr. Hynek's replies to be curt or dismissive -- if he replied at all.

Well, he did reply, almost without fail, and his lengthy letters to his admirers were unfailingly thoughtful, courteous, and -- surprise, surprise -- interested! As I marveled at Dr. Hynek's letters, I noticed that many of the response letters mixed into the files had been written not by Hynek but by a William T. Powers. And his letters were, if anything, even more polite and respectful than Hynek's own! Who was this mystery man handling so much of Dr. Hynek's correspondence? I had to find out!

Powers' association with Hynek took place in the 1960s, long before CUFOS was formed, so there was nothing in the CUFOS records at all. So I searched and searched until I found a phone number and I made the call. Bill Powers answered, and when I introduced myself and told Bill about the book, he was tickled to death to talk about his work with Allen. Bill and I talked several times over the next few months, always on Skype, because Bill wanted to be "face to face" to tell his stories. He was a wonderful man, always full of good cheer and amazing memories; at one time he referred to himself as "The Powers Behind the Throne," which really cracked me up! And he had some great stories, many of which found their way into my book.

Inevitably I brought up those letters, and asked Bill how hard it was to be so patient with all those people expounding on their baffling experiences and theories. Here's our exchange from the recording:

Me: About the letters to Hynek, did you ever think “I can’t possibly respond to this letter?”

Bill: Well, it made me be honest with myself. I remember one guy in particular, who wrote about his -- he had a concept of almost a perpetual motion machine -- but it was some weird thing, and I read his incoherent explanation of his anti-gravity device, and thought, this is bullshit. Then I thought, now wait a minute, that’s not fair to him. Suppose he is crazy, but suppose he’s right? These are not two things that go together all the time, to be crazy and to be wrong is not necessarily the case. So how can I actually find out if there’s anything to his idea? Well, I ended up buying him (unintelligible) electric (unintelligible) and sending it to him, so he could try out his idea, at my own expense. Why not give him a chance to prove that what he’s saying is true?
I found this attitude amazing. Bill later told me that he and Hynek both felt that if someone had a story to tell or an idea to share, they deserved to be listened to. That principle guided Allen Hynek' work to the very end.

Bill passed away a few months after our last chat, and to this day I feel extraordinarily lucky to have known him. The nice surprise story at the end of all this is that Bill's daughter wrote to me last week to tell me how much it meant to her that I had interviewed her dad for the book. I was pretty happy to hear it, and even happier to hear that when she was a child she saw what she took to be an alien hiding near the Corralitos Observatory in New Mexico where her dad and Dr. Hynek were working... Are you surprised?

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