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?


Bill Pilgrim said...

To be an early inspiration and figurehead for an '-ology' that would sometimes suffer the slings and arrows of condescending fortune requires more than an open and enquiring mind. It also requires a broad vision and a compassionate, empathetic heart. Dr. Hynek and Mr. Powers certainly seemed to demonstrate both.
Did you happen to read the REAL ROMANCES 'confession' featured on the cover? If so, was there anything to it that you think might have piqued Dr. Hynek's interest?

Mark UFO'Connell said...

Hi Bill, I'm sad to say there was no other material with the Real Romances cover! Hynek did have a sense of humor, though, and a penchant for collecting goofy UFO-themed cartoons--maybe this was part of that collection?

Bill Pilgrim said...


Gosh, all the traits I noted above...PLUS a sense of humor about the subject. I wish I could have met him.

In my view, if there's one thing the UFO community could use more of...it's humor.
Yes, the subject is a serious ride. But I see no reason why we shouldn't 'sit light in the saddle' once in a while.

BTW. Did you see the photos I sent via your university email?

Mark UFO'Connell said...

Hi Bill,
I'm glad you asked about the photos! I don't check my university email address very often over the summer, and I hadn't seen your email until now. You made your point! Apparently I have spent too much time in MUFON, where all you seem to get are photos of foggy shapes, lens flares or indistinguishable pinpoints of light. Your photos are very intriguing--I especially like the one taken at the Chinese airport. It makes me wonder if there would be any substantive difference between two photos taken of the same UFO, but one captured digitally and one captured on old-fashioned film?

Bill Pilgrim said...


It's the only email address I could find.

I'm pleased you found the photos intriguing. I have more of the Chinese airport object, from different vantage points, if you're interested.

re: film vs. digital photos. An interesting question that I don't have the answer to. You're aware no doubt that most witnesses who photo a UFO neglect to specify what kind of camera they had. So even if we did see photos of the same object by different witnesses we'd have no way of knowing.

Mark UFO'Connell said...

Hi Bill,

Now that you mention it, MUFON's case investigation forms don't make any reference to photos. Aside from allowing a witness to upload pictures, there is no place on the investigation form for any additional information on the images or how they were captured. Maybe they simply assume that in this day and age it's going to be a digital image and they lump all digital cameras and phones together, but it strikes me as funny that MUFON doesn't ask for more info. I know that in all the photo cases I "investigated" for MUFON I almost never asked the witness for any info on the pics or how they were taken.

Bill Pilgrim said...

Hi Mark,

Go figure, aye? The proliferation of photo devices and the propensity of young people to take pictures of everything that happens in their lives ought to be a real consideration for MUFON data collection.

It might be speculation, but whereas someone from our generation might just stare with dropped jaw at a UAP and not think to snap a photo...then lose the moment, a younger person would likely whip out his/her cell phone immediately and snap a photo.
I think ufologists should consider that a boon.

Mark UFO'Connell said...

What if we could get every man, woman and child on earth to all point their cell phones directly overhead and snap a picture at the same instant. If we could stitch those billions of photos together into one colossal image of the sky, what would we see? I wonder about that sometimes...

Bill Pilgrim said...

What a compelling image that would be!
And what a rich imagination to think of it!

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"

Mark UFO'Connell said...

Even so, I'm pretty sure the UFOs would find a way to remain concealed...

Terry the Censor said...

> I have more of the Chinese airport object, from different vantage points, if you're interested.

Which airport?