Astronomer Bill Hrudey doubled the size of a legacy fund with his gift

Bill Hrudey constructed a life that was out of the ordinary — and a little bit out of this world — when he retired to the Cayman Islands in 1997.

After working as a medical doctor in Alberta and B.C. for almost 30 years, in retirement Bill returned to his boyhood love of astronomy. He built elaborate telescopes and spearheaded the construction of an observatory at the University College of the Cayman Islands to house them, involved in its fundraising, design and construction. He was key to the Islands’ annual student science fairs and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) conferences. He became a Member of the British Empire and built an international reputation as a solar astronomer, renowned for his breathtakingly detailed photos of the sun.

Before his death in February 2018 at age 76, he made one more thing — a gift in his will of US$30,000 to an Edmonton Community Foundation legacy fund established almost 20 years earlier, in honour of his parents. His donation almost doubled the fund’s value.

Dr. Bill Hrudey’s photos of the sun, such as the one above, are on display at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands

There’s pride in Terry Hrudey’s voice as he talks about the remarkable life of his older brother. But, he says, much credit belongs with their parents Steve Sr. and Kay Hrudey, who inspired their three boys to learn, to dream, to build and to give back.

“One of the things that makes me admire my dad so much is what he achieved, starting with so little,” Terry says.

Steve Hrudey owned a construction company that got its start building houses, including the family home in Windsor Park. Both he and Kay were first-generation children of Ukrainian immigrants, who loved Edmonton. They volunteered with service organizations, enjoyed the colourful Heritage Festival and gently steered Bill, Terry and youngest brother Steve Jr. toward attending the University of Alberta.

Terry recalls his dad had a garage full of tools and encouraged his sons to figure out how things work. “It wasn’t him standing there showing us how to do things,” Terry says. “It was more just, ‘Here’s the tools, guys, let your imagination go.’”

Bill’s imagination was fired by his twin passions of photography and astronomy. In the 1950s, a small wooden observatory run by the Royal Astronomical Society stood near what is now the Jubilee Auditorium. Teenage Bill spent a lot of time there.

“He was building telescopes then, too,” Terry says. “His darkroom all of a sudden became a place where telescope mirrors were being ground.”

Photography kickstarted Bill’s career in medicine, inspired by his job as a medical photographer at University Hospital. After practising family medicine in Sherwood Park, he moved to Vancouver, worked for the Workmen’s Compensation Board, and with a few colleagues later co-founded a health practice focused on chronic back problems.

The three Hrudey brothers in Grand Cayman (left to right: Terry, Bill, Steve)

When Bill was diagnosed with cancer in late 2017, his brothers travelled to Grand Cayman to see him. During that visit, they toured the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands where Solaris, an exhibition of Bill’s photographic images of the sun created with his Newtonian telescope, was on display.

They also talked about the gift that Bill would make to the Kay & Steve Hrudey Memorial Fund, which the brothers started after Kay’s death in 1998.

They used some money from her estate and agreed they would eventually add to it from their own. “[Bill] was pretty keen on the idea,” Terry says. “He felt — well, all three of us do — very connected to our parents and very proud of what they accomplished.”

The fund offers an annual scholarship to a student volunteering at the Heritage Festival and assists Edmonton palliative care facilities.

ECF donor advisor Noel Xavier says the Hrudeys’ plan to build up the existing fund, rather than create a new one, is deeply meaningful. “It allows you to tie your legacy to your parents. It’s creating a family legacy.”

In Bill’s obituary, the brothers noted that his many skills included woodworking, model boat building and computing, in addition to astronomy and photography.

“He was always anxious to teach others many of these skills and took particular joy in encouraging young students to take an interest in science,” they wrote. With Bill’s gift, Terry and Steve hope to support an organization that shares his passions for science education — and for the stars.