Probably the two most incredible things that I've had the chance to do in life are that of growing up on a farm with my parents and older brother and sister where every day was an adventure, and that of travelling into outer space while working at the Herrett Planetarium and Observatory in Twin Falls, Idaho during my junior and senior high school years. It's safe to say that nearly everything about these two experiences was very magical, not just because of what I was able to do, but also because of what I was able to accomplish so early in life, when both the mystique of growing up and the mystery of the universe around us are both so full of wonder.
I know that it's often difficult for many people today to envision just how special a Planetarium and Astronomical Observatory were to a young person back in the 1960's, especially with all of today's wizardry of computers, the Internet, video games, and the special effects of hundreds of high-tech movies, not to mention the high-resolution photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope. With all of today's full-color, multi-media options with which we are constantly being bombarded, sometimes it is hard to separate today's reality from yesterday's fantasy.
Yet, if you let your imagination work just for a moment or two, it can be done. What I ask is that you close your eyes, take a deep breath, and allow your mind to go blank, if only for an instant. Next, try to imagine that you are living back in a simpler time before Harry Potter, before The Fellowship of the Ring, before the three movies in the Matrix Series, before Star Trek - The Next Generation, and even before the six movies in Star Wars. Imagine that you have just heard of a new TV show - Star Trek - but that the one channel on your black and white TV in the rural farming community where you live doesn't even carry this program.
If you can imagine the simpler times that existed in our country's farmland in the early- to mid-1960's, I think you can envision the phenomenal wizardry of a man named Norman Herrett, as well as enjoy some of the benefits to those he touched in a very special way. Although it has often been suggested that Norman Herrett may have been a "genius," the man I came to know seemed simply to be a very ordinary fellow who always did extraordinary things whenever he set his mind to it. Far from detracting from his accomplishments in the Magic Valley of Idaho, however, I believe this is one of the highest compliments that could be attributed to any individual.
It seems clear from an early age, that Norman Herrett was very interested not necessarily in just astronomy, but in finding what was "out there" in our universe and more importantly, sharing those discoveries with those around him. But before focusing upon his achievements, some introduction is needed in order to describe just how much this important man touched so many lives, including my own, and exactly how he enhanced the future of those whom he influenced.
My Older Brother Eugene's Interest in AstronomyNot everyone growing up has a brother that is almost ten years older than he is, or a brother who is an Eagle Scout, or an older sibling who is a National Merit Scholar Finalist. My older brother, Eugene, was all three of these. The net result for me while growing up on a farm was that many of my first memories involved something that my older brother was doing, both because of our age difference and because just about everything that he worked on was so fascinating to me at the time.
Much of my personal interest in astronomy was because my older brother, Eugene, had a black-colored reflector telescope that he got for Christmas in 1956, when he was eleven years old. At that time I was less than two years old. And while I don't remember anything about that Christmas, I do recall from a very early age that my older brother was always interested in the outdoors and especially the night sky.
Times were very different back then, because if you went outside at night on the farm, the night sky was actually dark - very dark. Instead of watching your shadows from the many man-made night lights in Magic Valley today, the night sky was lit up like a Christmas tree, especially on the warm and cricket-filled summer nights in the midst of the flood-irrigated fields of the arid desert in South Central Idaho. At that time, you could even clearly see the Milky Way, the galaxy in which our own sun is positioned.
I remember that Eugene used to go out a lot at night with his girlfriend, Linda Gregory. When I would ask him where he was going, he would say "To look at the moon." I eventually figured out that he wasn't entirely telling the truth, however, because even as a budding amateur astronomer, I knew when there was a moon to look at, and when there wasn't. One time when Eugene told me that he was going out to look at the moon, I asked him "What moon?" After that, I'm pretty sure that he made up some other stories about where he was going at night, whenever I asked.
The first specific memory that I have of being interested in astronomy was Eugene trying to show me the rings of Saturn through his telescope when both my older sister, Nancy, and Eugene's girlfriend, Linda, were there. Because I was such a little kid, however, I bumped the telescope while trying to look through the eyepiece, and knocked the planet out of view. Eugene found this rather upsetting for some reason.
I also remember that my brother Eugene and his high school girlfriend, Linda Gregory, both worked at the Herrett Planetarium and Observatory in Twin Falls, Idaho where they would present shows using the complex Planetarium equipment by projecting stars onto the 22-foot dome-shaped ceiling, and then escort guests up the stairs to the Observatory that housed two hand-crafted telescopes made by Norman Herrett where the guests could often see a few of the more interesting sights in the night sky, when viewing conditions permitted.
My actual memories of being in either the Herrett Planetarium or Observatory before my older brother left for college in 1963 and when I entered third grade, are limited to climbing the stairs in the dark that led from the Planetarium to the Observatory. The impressions of what Norman Herrett had built, however, had already been forever imprinted upon my mind so that I knew I had to wait at least four years until I entered seventh grade in order to begin training to do the same job that Eugene and Linda had done before me.
It wasn't until 30 years after I finished my own work at the Herrett Planetarium and Observatory in 1972 that I started asking Eugene and Linda what they remembered from working there during their junior high and high school years, some ten years earlier than my own experiences. Despite the period of time that has passed, Eugene's and Linda's youthful enthusiasm have provided me with a wealth of memorable details to fully discuss what it was like for them to be some of the first kids to work with Norman Herrett on his great experiment.
When asked, my older brother, Eugene, said that he didn't remember how he was first introduced to the Herrett Planetarium and Observatory but said that he attended one or more programs as part of a school group, boy scouts, or both. He said that this was before he was a high school student, so he knew about the Planetarium and Observatory. He further said that he didn't remember how he might have learned about the Student Lecturer program, but his guess is that he learned about it by asking how he might access those wonderful telescopes like the "big kids" did.
Eugene does remember that he started studying at Herrett's before he was old enough to drive, because our mom often drove him there. Since he got his first car when he was 14, his best guess is that he started working at Herrett's when he was about 12, which is consistent with the time frame that other students, including myself, were allowed to begin studying at the Planetarium and Observatory, which was normally the summer between sixth and seventh grades.
Eugene Hite's First Lecture at the Herrett Planetarium and ObservatoryMost interestingly, Eugene remembers that he was about 13 when he gave his first full lecture, but that it was unusual to be trusted with this responsibility at such a young age. The description that my older brother provides about giving his first lecture at the Herrett Planetarium is as follows:
"I had the privilege to be one of Norm Herrett's students. Actually, I was pretty young when I started hanging around the Observatory, too young to be a Lecturer yet. But, as many times as I could get someone to drive me from our home south of Jerome (about 15 miles away) to Herrett's, I was there grabbing an empty seat in the Planetarium presentations, standing in line for a look through the telescopes, and presenting my own shows (to an audience of one - me) in the Planetarium when no one was around (Norm let me do that!)."
"How many young people have the opportunity to operate the controls of a teaching Planetarium? I dreamed of the day (night) when I would be old enough to be a real 'Lecturer' there."
"My dream was fulfilled much earlier than anyone expected. A group of college students in an astronomy class at Idaho State College (now Idaho State University) had come over 100 miles from Pocatello, Idaho to see our show. I was in awe of them. They seemed so grown-up, and so smart! But the scheduled Lecturer didn't show up for some reason. The student audience was milling around the Jewelry Store (before Norm had built the adjacent Museum), and Norm was tied up with some important meeting concerning his jewelry business. Finally, five minutes before the show was to start, Norm strolled up to me with his typical confidence, and said, 'Eugene, you do the show tonight. You'll do well. I know you will. I have work I must do tonight. Go set up now. Get going. I don't want the show to be late.'"
"While I can't remember for sure, I think I must have been 13 at the time - a very terrified 13! Happily, I was big for my age, and thankfully probably looked somewhat older than I really was. But I was shaking so hard, it was difficult to unlock the Planetarium door. I settled into the operator chair (which was good, because I was having trouble standing), worked through the memorized startup sequence, and tried to look confident (unsuccessfully, I'm sure) and busy as those college students walked in and took their seats."
"Then, I noticed that they weren't looking at me at all. Rather, they were looking at all the equipment! Hey, maybe I could pull this off! They didn't have to know this was my first attempt with an audience. I cued the tape for Moonlight Sonata, and brought up the volume while slowly turning the big knob that dimmed the room lights."
"All chattering stopped. All eyes were directed at the curved ceiling, all except mine. I could just make out the expressions on the faces of the audience in the darkening room as the first magnitude stars appeared. There was wonder on their faces, and a new sense of confidence welled up in me."
"This was a 'first' for them too. And I knew my stuff. My hands stopped shaking, my fingers ran expertly over the control panel, in which every switch, every knob, had a different shape so it could be located without a mistake in total darkness. No longer was I a 'little kid' talking to 'big college kids.' Leaning back in my chair, I was talking to the stars, my stars, stars which moved, brightened, dimmed, appeared, or disappeared at my command, just as they had so many times before. My voice rang clear and deep through the bass-enhanced sound system."
"As was our custom, in addition to the 'science' presentation, I took them all on a trip that night, on a simulated rocket trip to space (vibrators on their seats made it all seem more real). They traveled far in imaginary space, but I traveled farther in experience. Each of us has those few experiences that define our lives. That was one of mine."
"When the lights came up again, the nervousness had been totally replaced by a sense of accomplishment. Several in the audience came by to thank me, and tell me how much they had enjoyed the show. One even asked me where I had gone to college to learn all that! For a second, I thought he was teasing me, and I stammered that I was just a high school student (let's call that an 'exaggeration') with an interest in astronomy. From his surprised response, I realized he hadn't been joking. Young as I must have looked, he was judging my age on the basis of what I knew, and how I could present it, not how I looked! There is a lesson for life."
"I led them up the stairs to the Observatory and supervised the observations with the two large telescopes. Imagine the new-found wonder of a 13-year-old directing college students, and having them respectfully listen and comply."
"I think the professor who accompanied the students had figured out what was going on. Back in the Jewelry Store, I noticed he took Norm aside, and there was a lot of smiling and chuckling going on between them. About the time the students were boarding their bus for the long ride back, my mother arrived to pick me up. I was just getting in the car when Norm caught up with me. In retrospect, I think he planned it that way. With my mother hearing it all, he told me that he had known all along that I could do it, and I had done it very well. I was 'promoted' to Lecturer Status, effective immediately. When would I like to volunteer for another show?"
"I vividly remember seeing the tears of pride welling in my mother's eyes. Norm really knew how to make an encouraging moment count. Mom and I didn't talk much on the way home; we didn't need to. Until I was old enough to get my driver's license (age 14 back then for daytime, and the police didn't seem to mind if we cheated a bit on the nighttime driving as long as we went straight home), mom seemed all the more willing to ferry me back and forth."
"Over the next several years, I honed my oral presentation skills there in the dark, with that wonderful bass-amplified sound system that made a teenager think he sounded like James Earl Jones. I discovered the importance of speaking with your audience in mind - how to fascinate second-graders one night, and enthrall rebellious high-school students (admittedly more difficult) the next. I learned well that the positioning is often at least as important as the position."
"The importance of that early learning to my career success is clear to me. Norm Herrett made that possible. Norm's Student Lecturers (that's the term he used for us) all grew in so many ways because he gave us the chance to learn from experience. We came to learn about astronomy; we learned success skills for life."
"With the gifts of a great teacher, a lot of work, and some good luck along the way, I have enjoyed more success than a kid off the farm dared to dream about. In no small way, Norm Herrett helped make all this possible."
As a footnote to my older brother's description of giving his first lecture at the Herrett Planetarium and Observatory, Eugene later graduated from the University of Idaho (with honors) with both Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in Electrical Engineering in only five years. Further, he was one of the top five engineering students in his class at the University when he graduated with his Bachelor's degree in 1967.
Linda Gregory's Memories About Working at Herrett'sAs I stated earlier, much of the magic that involved my own introduction to the Herrett Planetarium and Observatory involved the fact that my older brother, Eugene, and his girlfriend - Linda Gregory, worked on Norman Herrett's first crew of Student Lecturers at the Center. Both Eugene and Linda were ten years ahead of me and graduated from high school in 1963. Eugene and Linda both graduated from Jerome High School, even though Linda had to commute from Twin Falls during her senior year where her family had moved.
Linda describes the night summer sky as quite different than what can be seen in the Magic Valley today. She says that in their early studies she and Eugene spent a lot of time observing the stars and celestial phenomena, such as meteor showers. She remembers the night sky over Southern Idaho in the early 1960's as "remarkably clear and beautiful." She says that even the Northern Lights were not only active, but visible, and also clearly very beautiful.
While my brother, Eugene, had a small 40-power, 2.25-inch black reflector telescope that I remember him unsuccessfully trying to show me how to use, Linda did not remember if she had been with Eugene when he used this instrument. Her best memories of using a telescope were with the 10-inch Catadioptric Telescope (or "Cat") in the Observatory at Herrett's.
Linda Gregory remembers much about the first crew and said that she and Eugene started studying and working as a team with Norm during the summer that they turned 16, which would have been in the summer of 1961, just before they were both juniors at Jerome High School in South Central Idaho. Linda's memory corroborates Eugene's recollection that he had probably been to one of Norm's original shows while he was in scouting. Linda, in turn, says that it was "the vast wonders of the universe" that interested her to work at Herrett's from the beginning.
As is obvious by now, it was clearly very magical for any interested youth in the Magic Valley to be able to use the equipment at Herrett's at such an early age in life, as well as the chance to work as a Lecturer on a volunteer basis at the Planetarium and Observatory. When asked to describe what that magic was like for Linda in this scenario, she provided the following description:
"It was a world of its own; it was dark and intimate; the stars were personal, but vast; God was close. In the narrow environment that was Jerome, where else could you meet people from all over Southern Idaho that wanted to know about something that you knew more about than they did? (I loved teaching.)"
"Where else in Southern Idaho could you learn about such diverse things as the vast universe of the sky, about incredible artwork, about archeological matters, and about gemstones? Where else in Southern Idaho could we go to talk to a man that would talk with us about anything in a way that most adults would not? Where else could we meet like-minded peers that we could discuss all this with?"
"Where else could you use such incredible telescopes? Where else could you observe such things that one man could make and use for the benefit of others? We had better equipment than most Planetariums and Observatories of the time, and we knew it. Every show was new, had new possibilities, new minds to be opened."
In describing other memorable experiences that she had while learning or working at Herrett's, Linda says that the most arduous moment that she could remember was getting seriously shocked once by the Planetarium equipment and then worrying about it happening again. Even though everyone who worked at the Planetarium and Observatory had to be comfortable with working in total darkness, there were still some things that could jump out and bite you, if you weren't careful.
Linda also described Norm's basement workshop as "pretty incredible." She says that you could get lost down there, and that it was not well lit. She further remembers that in one instance she was walking through the basement workshop and suddenly, just in front of her, there was a large black widow spider hanging from the ceiling at just about eye level that she nearly ran into!
Linda recalls that Norm had a 44-page typed training manual (that she still has) that he passed out to those students who were interested in learning the Planetarium and Observatory lectures. Norm also showed the students how to use the equipment. Other than this, however, most of the "training" at the Planetarium and Observatory was self-taught by each individual who wanted to become a Lecturer.
Following her own mastery of the astronomical material, Linda remembers often giving about two lectures per week to interested citizens or groups. She and Eugene often committed to Planetarium and Observatory Lectures on Tuesday and Saturday nights. She also remembers that the day shows, when they occurred, were more difficult and somewhat less interesting, because as Operators they could not actually focus either of the large telescopes in the Observatory above the Planetarium on any actual sky objects.
At that time, Linda said that she never presented a full lecture by herself. She said that Eugene and she always gave a lecture in tandem where he would typically give more than half of the show, both in the Planetarium and upstairs in the Observatory. Linda said that she remembered giving the lecture on the supernova, which was graphically presented on the Planetarium ceiling, and that she explained the Catadioptric Telescope during the Observatory session.
Once upstairs in the Observatory, Linda says that she used both the 12.5-inch Newtonian Reflector Telescope as well as the 10-inch Catadioptric Telescope. She definitely preferred the Catadioptric Telescope or "Cat," however, as everyone came to call it. She said that it was always her delight to work with the visiting students in both explaining and showing them how to use the telescopes. Linda says that she often answered visiting students' questions during the show and was more at ease in the Observatory with a more conversational style of presentation.
Linda says that there were also multiple sessions where a number of the Lecturers would gather in the Planetarium and discuss the shows with each other - what worked, what didn't work so well, and their experiences with the audiences. She further says that all the Lecturers became friends, and in some ways the Planetarium was their "clubhouse," which is a term that I heard Norm use at least once some six to eight years later while I was serving as a Lecturer at the Center.
Following the initial group of students who started in the summer of 1961 along with Linda, a number of other students came to the lectures to observe and learn how to lecture. Linda says that she believes that she belonged to the oldest group of students that she knows about who worked at the Herrett Center, which is consistent with what Eugene Hite recalls (even though he started working there years earlier than Linda did, in about 1956, when he was only 11 years old).
Linda does not remember Norm giving any lectures during the timeframe between 1961 and 1963 while she worked at Herrett's. During this period, Norm apparently limited his direct contact to providing instruction with the equipment, and also providing information about astronomy that one would need to know in order to give the lecture, along with how to answer most of the common questions that often followed a presentation at the Center.
On a personal level, Linda says that Norm was her "first mentor," and that she loved both him and his wife, Lillie. Linda says that she suspects that she and Eugene may have been Norm's favorites during that time. Norm and Lillie spent a lot of time with the two of them in the evenings after everyone else had left, "talking about everything you can imagine." Linda also says that Norm was a "great teacher." Linda says that probably the most memorable experiences while working at Herrett's were the after-hours conversations that she had with Norm and Lillie Herrett.
Linda also says that when Eugene and she were seniors in high school, that Fran Lambert started assisting Norm in coordinating the growing number of Student Lecturers. Since there were six students in Norm's original group that were graduating in 1963, and Norm was expanding his Museum and other operations, he had to get someone who could help continue teaching and coordinating the growing number of Student Lecturers.
Norm presented Eugene and Linda with pins that were each about one and one-half inches wide that showed the planet Saturn and its rings along with the engraving "Herrett's Planetarium Operator" along with the imprint of the number of years of service that each of them had. Linda said that she received her pin at just about the time she graduated from high school. In later years, Norm had similar pieces of jewelry made in the shape of an Observatory that were given to his students when they were able to present a lecture by themselves in both the Planetarium and Observatory.
As has been noted elsewhere, Norm knew how to provide positive feedback as well as encourage those who worked with him to reach as far as they could in attaining the personal goals in their lives, whatever those goals might be. Linda also received a copy of the book entitled Splendor in the Sky by Gerald S. Hawkins from Norm when she graduated from high school in 1963. The inscription of encouragement from Norm to her at that time reads as follows:
"Linda Gregory - Your stability, control, and understanding is what we need so badly in this world. I wish we could have seen more of you. I'm very proud to have had you serve for such a short time. - Norm H."
As a footnote to Linda Gregory's achievements at the Herrett Planetarium and Observatory, she went on to obtain a B.A. in anthropology (with honors) with minors in sociology and psychology, completed two years of law school, obtained her M.B.A., and has completed all of the courses required for a Master's Degree in Accounting.
My older brother, Eugene, and Linda Gregory Wotipka are good friends to this day and still share many of the memories of growing up where they had the unique opportunity to discover the universe about them by both learning and teaching at the Herrett Planetarium and Observatory. It is very clear from interviewing these two individuals just how special this work has been in affecting each of their lives.
The 1958 Rand McNally Modern Map of Outer SpaceSometime after my older brother, Eugene, left for college in the fall of 1963, I got up into the closet in his old bedroom and retrieved several copies of the 1958 Rand McNally Modern Map of Outer Space that had been given to him by Norman Herrett, and eventually put one of the maps up in my room. It's often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but for me personally, this picture set in motion one of those experiences where I just knew that I had to see for myself what was really out there in the night sky.
Just having this full-color mural on the wall was like having my own private portal to the universe. Even in the middle of the winter, I could look at the map and feel almost like I was playing outside on a warm summer night with a cool breeze beneath a starry sky in the arid Southern Idaho desert.
Norman Herrett had apparently purchased quite a number of the Rand McNally maps and had glued an advertisement for his Jewelry Store on the bottom left corner of each of the maps and another ad for the Planetarium and Observatory on the bottom right corner of each of the maps. I'm not sure if Norm realized just how effective these maps might be in introducing grade school kids to astronomy. But in my case, this was all that was needed. From third through sixth grades I poured over every astronomy book that I could find, including some that my older brother had left at home, and even started an astronomy club in my hometown of Jerome, Idaho called J-JAC's - which stood for the Jerome Junior Astronomy Club. Although the astronomy club was rather short-lived, my enthusiasm for eventually working at the Herrett Planetarium and Observatory wasn't.
As I grew up during third through sixth grades, I kept trying to learn how to use Eugene's 2.25-inch, 40-power black reflector telescope, but because the field of view was so small, I could almost never find even the full moon in the eyepiece. Even when I could find the moon in the eyepiece, the mount to the telescope was less than perfect, so the earth's rotation would quickly move the moon out of the view of the telescope.
Not to be deterred, I had an old copy of an Edmund Scientific Catalogue, also as a courtesy of my older brother, Eugene, and knew that most of the telescopes in the catalogue had finder telescopes, which had a larger field of view. Hence, I tried using my older brother's smaller black refractor telescope as a finder scope, by attaching it to the reflector with large rubber bands, but that never really helped me "find" anything in the eyepiece of the larger reflector, mainly because the finder scope could not be aligned in a straight fashion with the reflector without a better mounting.
Back then, even small telescopes were very expensive and difficult to find. After seeing that there were refractor telescopes for about $60 in the Sears and Roebuck Catalogue, I tried to save up the money to buy one. The problem was that, at minimum wage, $60 then is worth about $1000 now. Hence, in working for my dad on the farm at 50 cents an hour, it was very difficult for me to save this kind of money, no matter how much I wanted a good telescope. Every time that I would save up some money, there would be something else that I bought instead.
Finally, my mom and dad relented after seeing my despair for so long and ordered me a Sears 60 mm Refractor Telescope, that I will forever be indebted to them for. It cost $59.99 along with $1.80 for postage and $ .30 for insurance. It was shipped to me from Seattle on August 29, 1967.
It was an unbearably long wait for me between the time that the telescope had been ordered and the time that it arrived. I finally called my mom at work about six days later to see if my Sears 60 mm Refractor Telescope had arrived that day and she told me that it had. It seemed like one of the longest afternoons in my life, waiting for my mom to get home from work so that I could see the telescope. But when she did arrive home with the telescope, a renaissance of the astronomical adventure began.
The telescope from Sears arrived just a few days before I started school in seventh grade in August of 1967. There were still a lot of warm and clear summer nights to study the night sky with. It was hard at first, because there are actually a lot of little things you need to learn, one at a time, in order to become proficient in using a telescope for the first time.
Using a telescope to view celestial objects at night is actually a lot harder than it looks, because you will almost always be using the scope in total darkness. During the first month, I spent a lot of time looking at the moon and numerous stars. It would be a few months before I discovered any of the planets. But, I eventually spent countless nights and hours looking at the stars, the moon, Venus, Jupiter and its four moons, and later Saturn and its magnificent rings, and Mars.
Learning how to use a small telescope was one of the most exciting things that I have done in my life. Seeing Jupiter and four of its moons for the first time is an event that I still remember. The image of these five bodies floating effortlessly in the cosmos is a vivid image that I will likely never forget. Even more stunning was the first view of Saturn and its phenomenal rings some time later. Even though I have said previously that a picture is often worth a thousand words, there is just no substitute for viewing celestial objects directly through a telescope while in the great outdoors.
I still have my Sears 60 mm Refractor Telescope in the original box, with all of the parts, the manual, the astronomy book that came with it, and the original star chart that I used to help find objects in the night sky. Although my first telescope will never compare to the Celestron 11-inch NexStar Telescope with its Global Positioning System that I presently have, using the Celestron will never be as exciting as using my Sears 60 mm Refractor was over 40 years ago.
Over the years, I have helped get a telescope for my younger cousin Bret Silver, who was one of my students while working at the Herrett Planetarium and Observatory, as well as my nephew, my son, some second cousins, and a couple of my sister's grandchildren.
Just after Christmas in 2007, I purchased about 30 small refractor telescopes at unheard of close-out prices at several of the local Wal-Mart Stores and have been distributing them since that time to grade school students who have shown either a direct interest or aptitude for using them wisely. Further, whenever I find a youth that I believe would make good use of a telescope, I also give them a letter that tells of my own adventures in astronomy and provides directions about how to keep their new precision instrument in perfect condition in the box and with all of the instruction manuals.
The results from these gifts have been variable; some kids today don't seem to take much interest in the night sky, while others of those who received the scopes have commandeered their parents or grandparents into being budding amateur astronomers right along side them on some chilly nights. For me, it is the latter of these stories that makes giving these telescopes away all worth while.
Unfortunately, there is so much light pollution today, even in a rural area like South Central Idaho, it is much more difficult to experience a lot of the beauty of the night sky in its full splendor. The good news, however, is that small telescopes don't cost nearly as much as they did back in 1967, and the engineers who designed these telescopes have made them much easier to use today.
Starting at the Herrett Planetarium and ObservatoryAs I mentioned earlier, it was a long wait between the time that my older brother went off to college in 1963 when I entered third grade, and 1967 when I entered seventh grade and was finally old enough to begin studying as a Lecturer at the Herrett Planetarium and Observatory. However, since my older brother had done this before me, it really didn't seem like such a big deal at the time.
I got my mom to drive me the 15 miles from Jerome to Twin Falls on a Saturday, showed up at Herrett's Jewelry Store, matter-of-factly asked to speak with Mr. Herrett, told him that my older brother, Eugene, had worked at the Planetarium, and that I had been waiting ever since to be old enough to follow in his footsteps. Norm treated me like I was an old family friend from the very beginning. I didn't realize at the time just how special my older brother must have been to Norm.
Norm made a phone call or two and promptly had one of the Planetarium Teachers, high school student Susan Randall, quickly arrive within 20 minutes to provide me with my first one-hour lesson at operating the Planetarium. Following this, another Planetarium Teacher, Shawna Ryan, spent considerable time with me in providing instruction over the next year. During my eighth grade year, Mike Miser was assigned as my Teacher to continue working with me.
The first lesson at the controls of the Planetarium was actually easy for me, because my brother had left me an 8 x 10 black and white photograph of the control consol which I had looked at many times over the previous four years. Hence, once I received instructions about how to use a certain set of switches and controls, I could then go home and pencil the names of the controls onto a tracing (which I still have) of the photograph in order to more readily memorize all of the necessary information.
The learning process involved three things at the Herrett Planetarium. First, you had to have the basic knowledge about the field of astronomy in order to lecture for most of a 45-minute period. Starting in third grade, I had read close to ten books on astronomy and was constantly rereading and studying them to remain up-to-date. My brother had left most, if not all, of his astronomy books on the farm when he went off to Engineering School at the University of Idaho.
Second, you had to learn how to operate the Planetarium controls by knowing what each switch did, even in total darkness. This was actually the easy part because there was a special magic about learning how to operate so many switches and buttons. Further, since I had constructed the see-through sketch of the switches on the control panel from the 8 x 10 photograph that I had, it was easy to study from home, especially as I learned what more and more of the switches were used for.
And third, you had to be able to speak to a group of up to 60 individuals, both in the light, and in total darkness, about all that you had learned and done at the Planetarium and Observatory. This was the hardest part because you had to integrate all of the knowledge that you had acquired along with your technical skills and be able to present this in a meaningful and enthusiastic manner, mostly in total darkness.
Although operating in the dark was initially a difficult task, the darkness soon became a trusted friend. After introducing yourself and providing a short talk before the sun set in the west on the Planetarium ceiling, the reduced lighting soon put you in control of the audience as well as removed much of the stage fright that could occasionally be present. The audience was soon focused upon what was unfolding above them on the Planetarium dome and only listening to a story that I was telling - a story that I knew by heart and enjoyed telling again and again.
My Own Nova Home PlanetariumAs noted earlier, I had spent a lot of time trying to save up the $60 that was necessary to buy a really good telescope that was advertised in the Sears and Roebuck Catalogue when I was 12 years old. At that time my mom and dad were paying me 50 cents an hour to do farm work. That was less than a penny for every minute of corrugating either a cornfield or a pasture, or in mowing the lawn. Even though there was plenty of work to do, it seemed like I was always spending my money on something else besides saving it for a telescope. Fortunately, my parents bailed me out by buying a good telescope, which I still believe is one of the best investments that they ever made for me.
In the winter of my eighth grade, however, I had saved up over $30 necessary to purchase my own Home Planetarium. I was finally able to get enough cash on hand to give the money to my mom who then sent a check along with the catalogue order to Edmund Scientific. Although this was a lot of money for a 13 year old to spend in the winter of 1969, this too proved to be an excellent investment and learning tool that helped me perfect many of the techniques that were necessary in running an actual Planetarium Show at the Herrett Center.
The Nova Home Planetarium was built by the Harmonic Reed Corporation, and really did what it was supposed to do. In addition to having a star globe and pointer, there was also an auxiliary projector used to outline the constellations as well as a small film projector that could be used to show black and white photographs of the planets, deep space objects, or a slide presentation of a futuristic rocket trip to the moon. There was also a device that fit over the star pointer used to simulate a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse.
It was not difficult to master the use of the Nova Home Planetarium, but the constellations of stars always looked distorted because they were projected onto the walls and ceiling of a square room instead of onto a round ceiling like that in an actual Planetarium. But the Nova Home Planetarium worked and I could actually keep the attention of my folks and close friends for an interesting 20-minute lecture, all while practicing for more formal lectures at the Herrett Planetarium.
Lecturing at the Herrett Planetarium and ObservatoryBetween the fall semester of 1967 during my seventh grade and the spring semester of 1969 during my eighth grade, I studied continuously to become a Lecturer at the Planetarium and Observatory under three Teachers, including first Susan Randall, Shawna Ryan during much of my seventh grade year, and finally Mike Myers during my eighth grade year.
During these two years I spent a lot of Saturdays at the Planetarium with my second cousin Steve Keith, and another friend, Marty Allison, both from my home town of Jerome, practicing giving shows by using the equipment in tandem to playing the music or the thunderstorm on the reel-to-reel tape recorder. In addition to this we would often give practice talks to each other on one portion of the lecture after another, in an attempt to both master the information that we needed to know as well as listen to how others presented the same facts and story lines necessary to inform and keep an audience's attention. Although both Steve and Marty eventually pursued other interests, I learned a lot from both of these friends from all the practice sessions we did.
Mastering the necessary information to become a Lecturer didn't just involve working in the actual Planetarium and Observatory, however. During the time that I was studying to be a Lecturer at Herrett's, I wrote out at least two complete Planetarium lectures on my own that varied somewhat from the standard lecture, typing out the material by painstakingly using only the index fingers on each hand. Since I didn't take typing until the spring semester of my freshman year in 1970, I know that both of these lectures were completed in either seventh, eighth, or the first half of my ninth grade years in school.
Once I had the lecture material written down the way I wanted it, I would then start reading the material over and over out loud until I had enough proficiency to actually lecture on the various topics from memory. Further, I eventually made good use of the cassette tape recorder that my parents purchased for me as a Christmas present in eighth grade. After listening to how my lectures sounded on the tape, which was almost always enlightening, I would then re-wind the tape and start anew. I did this repeatedly until I could recite the entire 45-minute lecture from memory in my bedroom at home.
At about the same time during my eighth grade year I accompanied my Teacher, Mike Myers, and assisted him in presenting portions of his lecture on three different occasions, by gradually doing more of the speaking during each of these events. By working in tandem, Mike was there to both help me out, if I did have some technical difficulty or a dreaded memory lapse, and also to provide both positive feedback and encouragement.
During the three lectures that I gave with Mike, he was always very supportive of my efforts and presented me with useful feedback on how I had done. Just as Susan Randall and Shawna Ryan had provided instruction to me before him, Mike seemed to always know how to use a strong hand to provide praise and a soft hand to provide constructive criticism. It amazes me to this day just how good my three Teachers were in helping me learn what I needed to do.
On May 10, 1969, I was scheduled to again assist Mike Myers by lecturing to a group of about 50 sixth graders at 9:30 a.m., which was on a school day. For some reason, Mike didn't show up and I simply went through the well-studied procedure of giving the entire lecture by myself. Frankly, it didn't seem any different to me at the time than giving just a portion of the lecture, like I had done previously with Mike.
As has been discussed previously in this article, as a Lecturer, I also knew my stuff. Following the presentation that I made in the Planetarium and the Observatory, Norm came out and gave me my Lecturer's Pin and told the sixth grade class that this had been the first full lecture that I had given by myself and that I was being awarded my "pin." To my complete surprise, the sixth graders seemed just about as excited in me being awarded the pin as I was. The teacher who accompanied her students was also clearly impressed.
Over the next three years that I worked in the Planetarium and Observatory, I saw many things that you had to get a handle on in order to maintain control over the few over-enthusiastic members that many of the audiences seemed to have. As has been described earlier in this article, however, even the most unruly guests typically soon focused their attention upon what was happening on the domed ceiling, sometimes as if they were experiencing the night sky for the first time in their lives.
In many instances, some of the younger kids who visited the Planetarium were almost fighting to get to the seats that were directly across from where I would sit in front of the control panel, so that they could watch what I did with the numerous dials, switches, and knobs in front of me. Unfortunately for them, about the only thing they were able to see me do was turning down the one large rheostat that controlled the house lights before it became too dark for them to see which other controls I was using, whether sitting at the control console or standing while operating some of the auxiliary projectors.
Once the lights went down, it was relatively easy to lecture. No one could see what you were doing. The one issue that was important, however, was that you had to learn to stutter-step around the room to reach some of the controls so that members of the audience could then pull their feet back under their chairs, instead of tripping you.
One of the most difficult procedures to follow during the lecture was to bring the light up on the single overhead slide projector that we used to show 35 mm slides, mainly of either the planets, or deep space objects, and then fade out the photo, place one of your eyes over the projector in order to center the next slide, and then fade the projector back in, all without anybody in the audience being able to tell exactly what you were doing or see that you were actually standing behind the control panel instead of sitting in front of it.
The goal of this procedure was to fade the photo of the planet or deep space object into the background of stars, and then to fade it out again. It didn't look very impressive if you had one-half of two slides in the projector at the same time. This procedure was harder than it sounds because you could only preload four 35 mm color slides into the tray of the projector at a time.
Hence, the first slide was properly centered before you started, while the remaining three slides had to be slid into position with the rheostat to the projector light turned almost all the way down. If you accidently turned the light up too far while you were still looking down the barrel of the projector, you could easily be blinded in that eye for up to 20 minutes in the darkened room. Therefore, you always used the same eye to look down the barrel of the projector just in case you did temporarily blind yourself. This way you could always still see well enough in the dark with the other eye to navigate around the room.
Norm was gracious enough on one occasion to have rented a bus for us so that we could travel to Salt Lake City and see the show at the Hansen Planetarium located there. At the time, the Hansen Planetarium had one of the newest projectors built by Spitz Laboratories, Inc. but was housed in an older building. As amateur astronomers, we gained a lot of insight into how a "real grownup" ran a Planetarium Show. Although it was quite different, it was all very interesting to us at the time.
Even more important, the gift shop at the Hansen Planetarium had numerous 35 mm slides of the planets and deep space objects such as nebula and galaxies that had been taken in full color with some of the largest telescopes in existence at the time. In addition, there were also full color slides of the first Apollo Lunar Landing. The result was that I came home with sixteen 35 mm slides which I then taped together in groups of four, which made handling the slides in the overhead projector in the Herrett Planetarium all that much easier to use.
On October 22 of 1969, I traveled on a school bus to Herrett's from the Jerome Junior High School with one-third of my own ninth grade class to see a Planetarium show and Museum lecture. My own Teacher at the Herrett Center, Mike Myers, was scheduled to give the lecture that day, but showed up a little later than expected. In the mean time, Norm came out to speak briefly with my class and apologize for the fact that Mike wasn't there yet. He also assured my classmates that this was "OK" as we were fortunate enough to have a "Spare Lecturer" (which was me) on hand at the time.
As has previously been noted by my older brother, Eugene, Norm really knew how to show his faith in you as one of his Lecturers. A few minutes later, however, my own Teacher, Mike Myers, did show up and graciously suggested that we should do the lecture together, since it was my classmates who were in the audience.
It was quite an event for me, because I had spent so much time since third grade in preparing to lecture before a group just like this. I was speaking to my friends, my classmates, and those from my home town. It was some five and one-half years after I had begun my own study of astronomy, and essentially all that I had learned to do in the Planetarium and Observatory was by then automatic for me.
After giving about half of the lecture along with my Teacher, Mike Myers, my own classmates later asked me how I could read the lecture material in the dark. Several of them either didn't believe me or were simply astounded when I told them I was lecturing from memory because they didn't think that anybody of our age could know enough about this information to actually present it from memory. The experience that I had in 1969 when I was 14 years old once again closely mirrors the experience that my older brother, Eugene, had when he gave his first lecture to a group of college students when he was about 13 years old.
Despite one's best efforts while working in the Planetarium, things didn't always go smoothly during a Planetarium Show. However, the use of humor to minimize or cover for operational mistakes during a Planetarium lecture was something that we always tried to work on, to enhance our presentations, and to make our lectures both more personal and more real. Although I conducted a lot of lectures that contained no operational errors, there were always a few occasions during the presentations in which a projector was either prematurely turned on, or prematurely turned off.
The audience frequently laughed at these kinds of miscues, which was always a little embarrassing, especially during the early lectures that I gave. However, I soon learned like many Lecturers before me that a good laugh seemed to quiet down a restless audience, especially if they were sixth graders, as well as increase their level of attention. Sometimes we were so focused upon doing everything right, we would forget that we were also there to provide some entertainment to our guests as well. It was often these little mistakes that kept us humble and in closer touch with the guests with whom we really wanted to connect.
It's not that the whole Planetarium experience wasn't supposed to be a learning experience, because it was. But there was also an opportunity to turn your miscues into a good laugh for everyone. Sometimes, it was these little mistakes that the younger observers in the audience remembered the most. The use of humor was almost always a good thing when we erred in the operation of the Planetarium show because it turned out that there was often some magic in these kinds of memories for many in the audience.
The most difficult lecture that I had to give by myself was with a group of LDS Boy Scouts from Burley, Idaho which was by far the most unruly audience that I had ever seen or heard about. When they came in and sat down for an evening show, I noticed that there was no adult accompanying them in the Planetarium, which was very unusual. This situation became problematic about half way through the lecture when I had to turn the lights up and ask a couple of the boy scouts to stop crawling over the seats and to please be quiet so that the rest of us could continue with the show.
This problematic situation actually had a good ending. As it turns out, knowing how to word a request such as this where you were enlisting the aid of the more courteous guests along with bringing the lights up focused just enough pressure on the more overzealous participants so that they were much better able to contain themselves during the rest of the show. Once upstairs in the observatory, all of my guests that evening seemed to have jumped on board with me and we were able to readily let everybody have some good looks through both of the big scopes.
Between May 10 of 1969 and March 10 of 1972, I presented 25 solo lectures to groups that typically ranged in size from 40 to 60 people. The last lecture I gave at the Herrett Planetarium and Observatory was actually a recorded lecture that I had stayed home from school to make in order to present to a group of friends that I had from my hometown of Jerome.
Having a recorded show was actually a novel idea at the time, because it was believed that Norm was strongly against having us give recorded lectures, because he believed (quite correctly I am now absolutely convinced), that there was a lot more to be experienced by the audience from hearing a live lecture. Although many of the lectures given at planetariums today are recorded shows that are run in part by Personal Computers, all of these lectures that I have seen across the country definitely lack the close and personal contact that our audiences received while experiencing a live show given decades ago by junior high and senior high school students at the Herrett Planetarium.
Becoming a Teacher at the Herrett Planetarium and ObservatoryAfter giving several lectures to a packed Planetarium, the next task at hand was to take all of the skills and knowledge you had gained and pass it on to younger students who also wanted to become a Lecturer, just as others had done before you. At that point in time, Norm would award a Teacher's Pin to a Lecturer who had gained the experience necessary to actually teach students how to run the Planetarium and Observatory equipment.
Actually, when Norm gave me my Teacher's pin, I was pretty disappointed because he took my original Lecturer's pin and simply exchanged it for a Teacher's pin, which looked the same except that there was a diamond set in the Teacher's pin. I had actually assumed that he would have to have a diamond set in my own original pin. I now realize that with the number of Lecturers and Teachers that he had at the time, it was simply impractical to have personally made these changes, and that the pins were almost certainly mass produced. Still, my Teacher's Pin shaped like an observatory with the engraving "Herrett Science Center" on it remains one of my most cherished possessions to this day, along with the medal I received during my senior year at Jerome High School for being the outstanding graduating Physics Student.
Suddenly having your own students did seem like a huge responsibility at the time and was certainly not something that I took lightly. Over the last couple of years that I was at Herrett's, I taught over a dozen students from my home town of Jerome although there was always a very high attrition rate due to the fact that we lived over 15 miles away from the Planetarium and Observatory. I had three long-term students, John Neal, my cousin Bret Silver, and Robert Sonnichsen. All three of these individuals were successful in becoming Lecturers at Herrett's. Many of my other students had parents who just couldn't afford the time to ferry them to Twin Falls and then come back and pick them up three or four hours later, Saturday after Saturday.
Being a Teacher was actually a lot of fun because you got to plan the overnight star parties that you had with your students and sometimes a few interested friends. By the time I started working at the Planetarium and Observatory, Norm had replaced the front row of Movie Theater seats with white upholstered benches with high backs so that the viewers could lean their heads back and have some neck support while they watched the Planetarium show unfold overhead. The benches also allowed for us to seat more primary school children in the Planetarium as well.
The big benefit to us as Lecturers was that there were then five cushioned benches (including the one back row bench) where five of us could lay out in sleeping bags after we became tired of using the big telescopes upstairs, usually at about 3:00 a.m. Hence, the Planetarium and Observatory really did serve as a "clubhouse" as has been mentioned earlier.
The star parties were a lot of fun because we were able to mount some of the high-powered lenses on the 10-inch "Cat," which was always my favorite, and literally zoom in on the moon, Jupiter, and especially Saturn and its magnificent rings. It's really not a big deal for anyone with even a small telescope to see four moons orbiting Jupiter, but on one occasion we were able to clearly see four moons that were orbiting Saturn (three of which are much smaller than Jupiter's four largest moons), and whose orbit is considerably further from the sun than Jupiter's. That was an experience!
We also used the 12.5-inch Newtonian Reflector, but it often proved to be more cumbersome because one had to position a ladder in order to reach the eyepiece on the instrument. Hence, every time we decided to look at a different celestial object, we would have to reposition the ladder, manually reposition the observatory dome, and then one at a time climb up and down the ladder to get a good look at our target.
The Newtonian Reflector did seem to clearly have better light-gathering power, as you would expect, because of its larger aperture. However, the vibrations from anyone moving on the floor of the Observatory often counter-affected this advantage, as the "Cat" was much shorter and not so prone to visual aberrations from vibrations.
What amazes me to this day is how well everyone who used the Planetarium or Observatory took care of what needed to be done in order not to damage any of the delicate equipment. What is even more amazing is that Norm trusted us not to tear anything up while we were experimenting, both with our presentation skills and with the format of our shows that took place in total darkness.
Being a Teacher to prospective Lecturers seemed like a big responsibility at the time because you were investing so much in seeing someone else succeed, hopefully by following some of the same steps that you took. Most of my students were able to master the equipment and the sequence of operating the controls rather easily. It was certainly no secret that the equipment was used to "hook" new students into being potential Lecturers. Since the world didn't have video games at that time, operating the Planetarium equipment was the next best thing to piloting a space craft.
On the other hand, it was the necessary knowledge about astronomy and the ability to present this information orally in total darkness that was so much more difficult to acquire. For this aspect, we practiced having one student after another, as well as myself, talk about the same portion of the lecture that we were trying to either get down pat, or improve upon.
As a result, by the time that any of us were ready to give a live lecture, we were so over-prepared, it often seemed anti-climatic. As has been alluded to by both Eugene Hite, Jr. and Linda Gregory earlier in this article, we knew what we were doing, we knew what we had to say, and we were used to working in total darkness, which had become a trusted friend and helped dampen any anxieties that could have affected our presentations.
The Teachers that I had all served as excellent role models when I became a Teacher myself. All three of my Teachers knew how to provide constructive criticism as well as praise. That was certainly the model that I aspired to and I was always protective of the students who were working with me. Yet it remained amazing to me just how instructional it was for me to see how some of my students learned, either from something I may have said or done, or from their own internal thoughts. Several of my students taught me numerous things that made my own lectures better, that I would never have thought of on my own at the time.
By the time I started working at Herrett's, we did not have a public address system like my older brother, Eugene, mentioned using. What we did have was an expensive reel-to-reel tape recorder located on the right side of the control panel that we would manually turn on and off for the sound effects that included music to the sunset, travel to and from the North Pole to see the aurora borealis, a thunderstorm, and the sunrise. When giving a lecture, the tape recorder and its controls had to be operated in total darkness just like the controls to the lighting and the star globes.
In about 1972, the reel-to-reel tape recorder was changed out to a stereo cassette recorder. I stayed home from school for a couple of days during my junior year and recorded the last lecture that I gave to a group of friends by mixing my voice with the music on my mother's home stereo and then played the tape back during the actual lecture at the Planetarium.
Little did I know at that time that my experiment in pre-recording a lecture would eventually become the standard method of presenting the verbal information in future Planetarium shows, not just at the Herrett Planetarium, but at planetariums on a nationwide basis as well. Unfortunately, this omen led to the eventual changing of the entire method that Norm Herrett had perfected so well in his own hand-crafted Planetarium and Observatory.
Copyright Protected 2009 to Present by Don Hite