Cloquet man has stars in his eyes

When Cloquet's John Cavanaugh was just 17, a date invited him to her family farm in Cottage Grove one night to look at the stars. "She was very disappointed when I actually wanted to look at the stars!" said Cavanaugh with a trademark sparkle in ...

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Backyard astronomer John Cavanaugh peers through the lens of his reflector telescope in the yard of his Cloquet home. Cavanaugh will lead a free Cloquet Community Education “Star Gazing Party” on Oct. 4 at Hilltop Field. Wendy Johnson/

When Cloquet’s John Cavanaugh was just 17, a date invited him to her family farm in Cottage Grove one night to look at the stars.

“She was very disappointed when I actually wanted to look at the stars!” said Cavanaugh with a trademark sparkle in his eye.

Astronomy has been a passion of Cavanaugh’s ever since the tender age of 6, when his father first took him to the Minneapolis Planetarium to see a display on the planets.

“I loved it from that moment on,” he said, “and I got my first telescope for Christmas when I was 7.”

Cavanaugh will share that love of astronomy on an upcoming Cloquet Community Education “Star Gazing Party” on Saturday, Oct. 4, from 7-9 p.m. at the soccer field at Cloquet’s Hilltop Park.


“It’s a casual gathering where kids and adults can come and look through the telescopes, ask their questions and share their stories,” said Cavanaugh. “It’s not a big time commitment, and it’s an opportunity to find out more about what’s out there in the night sky.”

Astronomy is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Cavanaugh’s many life-long interests, and his almost childlike enthusiasm is contagious.

“My beginnings were pretty much like my current situation,” he explained with a grin.  “I refer to myself as a ‘non-practicing adult!’”

That’s because most, if not all, of his interests can be traced back to experiences in his youth.

He grew up in Cottage Grove at a time when it was still a farming community of some 800 people.

“There wasn’t a lot going on, but I was a true member of the Baby Boom generation and there were tons of kids on our block,” he related. “We were able to put together two baseball teams and could play baseball whenever we wanted.”

Other things he recalls really liking to do were playing Army and collecting insects.

“There was a pond nearby that was actually the storm water collection pond, and we’d go down there and get frogs and look at the tadpoles. It was a more trusting time, and we could hop on our bikes and pretty much ride wherever we wanted to.”


His dad had a strong love of science, which he instilled in young John, but tragically his dad was killed by a drunk driver in 1968, when John was just 12 years old.

“There’s no doubt about it - it’s one of those marks that is a milestone in your life and definitely changes it,” said Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh is the first to confess that he wasn’t a good student in elementary school.

“I think I have a little dyslexia because I have a really hard time in coding words, so my spelling’s horrible even to this day,” he said.

On the flip side, he became a sight reader and because of that he could read really fast.

“I love reading and I love books, so that’s a really good compensation for someone who has a learning disability,” he said. “If you can read, you’re gonna learn.”

As Cavanaugh moved on through school, his grades got better and better. The first (and only) A he got in elementary school was in - you guessed it - astronomy!

“I was really a quiet kid in school, but when it came to that astronomy unit and the teacher started asking questions, I answered every one of them,” he said. “My dad and I used to spend time looking at the moon. That was a time, in 1963, when President Kennedy had already promised to put man on the moon before the end of the decade. We were all excited about that.”


Little by little, Cavanaugh began to find his niche, not only in school but in life.

“As you grow up you tend to attract people who are like you, so many of my friends in school were nerds also,” he said. “We were interested in science and Star Trek and all of that kind of stuff.”

He participated in Cub Scouts from Wolves to Webelos and then he joined Civil Air Patrol.

“I was nuts about aviation, space and the military, and they had something that the Boy Scouts didn’t have - it was co-educational, so there were girls!” he said with a sparkle in his eye.

He stayed in Civil Air Patrol from ages 13-18 and had become a cadet master sergeant by the time he got out.

In high school, Cavanaugh’s life’s dream was to become a meteorologist.

“I just love the weather,” he said. “It’s always changing, it’s complex and you have to analyze it to figure out what’s going on. As a kid, my ultimate goal was to become a hurricane hunter and fly into the midst of them. What prevented me from doing that were my math skills, which weren’t quite up to par.”

Even today, one of Cavanaugh’s hobbies is ham radio.


“They have a Weather Net every Saturday evening and I don’t want to miss it,” he said. “I have my own little weather station and I write down all of the information. There’s a storm chaser’s seminar every spring in the Twin Cities and I had the opportunity to go there one year and it was great!”

Cavanaugh went to Inver Hills Community College and earned his Associate of Arts degree in liberal arts before going on to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to earn his Bachelor of Science degree in geography with a minor in history.

“I have a gift in that I have really good spatial relationships,” he explained. “I can take a two-dimensional drawing and make a three-dimensional drawing in my head and rotate it around, which is good for woodworking and things like that, but for me, it was maps. I found out in elementary school that I could read maps and graphs and charts really well.”

When he was in college, Cavanaugh joined the Minnesota National Guard, originally as a helicopter mechanic for the Army Guard before discovering there was a weather unit with the Air Guard, where he earned an Associate of Science degree in weather technology.

“There was a special moment that happened when I was at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, working at the base weather station,” related Cavanaugh. “I just stopped what I was doing, looked around and thought, ‘Yeah, I’m livin’ the dream!’ It was where I wanted to be right then.”

He was still in college at the time and engaged to be married.

He and his fiancé, Kora, had been in kindergarten and first grade together in Cottage Grove but they pretty much lost touch after that, until a friend who was going to Lakewood Community College with Kora told Cavanaugh one day, “I think Kora Menard likes you.”

“He told me Kora said she’d had a dream about me,” said Cavanaugh. “She dreamed we went out to a movie in my friend’s Camaro.”


A couple of weeks later, when Cavanaugh ran into Kora at a dance place in Inver Grove Heights, he walked up to her and said to her, “I hear I’m the man of your dreams!” After that they began seeing each other nearly every day, got engaged and were married a year and a half later.

Following college graduation, Cavanaugh got an interim position with the State Planning Agency, helping to design the first computer reapportionment map for the state of Minnesota. In 1981, he took a job as the supervisor at the Thompson Hill Tourist Information Center in Duluth.

“Again, it was pretty much a dream job!” he admitted. “I love the state, especially when you look at history, geography and culture of Minnesota, and I’m so proud of it.”

He and Kora spent a year in Duluth and then bought a home in Scanlon and later a house on Sixth Street in Cloquet to make more room for their two young children, Jake and Lane.

In the military, Cavanaugh had reached a point where he was training new weather observers and found he really enjoyed it, so when a training job opened up with the Minnesota Department of Transportation in Duluth he applied for it and got it. He now does leadership and supervisory training and aligns employees with the classes they need to do their jobs.

“I really enjoy helping people,” he said. “When you enjoy what you’re doing, it doesn’t seem like work. It’s all about attitude.”

He also works with Mn/DOT as a volunteer snowplow driver.

“Talk about living the dream!” he said with a laugh. “When I was little I used to love playing with Tonka trucks - now I get to drive them!”


For Christmas during the early years of their marriage, Kora bought Cavanaugh a telescope, further reinforcing his childhood love of the stars.

“Space is so vast,” he said. “Even with the most powerful telescope that I have, most stars will still be just a point of light. Even the closer stars are seven light years away. It takes light from the sun nine and a half minutes to get to earth. The distances are just so huge, and I like that.”

Cavanaugh said he’s had three memorable moments in life that have made him more passionate than ever about astronomy.

“Once, when we were out on my step-father’s farm in South Dakota and were returning from church on Christmas Eve,” he recollected, “I stepped out of the car and remember looking up and it was just a velvety, black sky filled with diamonds. There was no moon, and the Milky Way was present and it all seemed so close. I stayed out there as long as I could before I started shivering.”

Another time, his family was on their way to Yellowstone National Park, camping in the Bighorn Mountains.

“That night, the stars came out and it just got darker and darker and they had that same effect,” he said.

The third experience is traveling with three of his friends from high school in the Boundary Waters every year.

“Sometimes we catch it just right when we can see the Northern Lights,” he said. “And we have a rule that we can’t go to bed until we spot a satellite!”

“When you’re looking at the stars, you’re really looking back into the past, not just hundreds of years but hundreds of millions of years,” he reflected. “That’s what excites me about astronomy.”

Cavanaugh got involved in Scouting once again as an adult, when his son Jake became a Tiger Cub and he was asked to become an assistant scoutmaster for Troop 173. Cavanaugh later became the Cub Master, and when his son went on to Boy Scouts, he became the committee chair for Troop 171. He’s still on the committee today.

“We had a lot of fun in Scouts together,” he said. “It was a great father-son activity at a time when teenagers sometimes pull away from the family.”

Cavanaugh also loves bicycling and tries to put on a couple thousand miles a year. He teaches a bicycle maintenance class for Community Ed and is a merit badge counselor in bicycling for the Scouts. He is involved in the National Guard Youth and Teen Camps, serving as camp director for several years, and with Northwood United Methodist Church, where he serves as the pastor/parish relations chair.

His son Jake is a junior high science teacher, and his daughter Lane is a social worker for Mayo Clinic. He and Kora will celebrate their 37th anniversary in October.

“She’s my biggest supporter and very tolerant of all my activities,” said Cavanaugh with that same sparkle in his eye, “-and she’s willing to look at the stars with me!”

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