District U46 planetarium marks 50 years of learning under the stars
By Emily McFarlan Miller email@example.com @emmillerwrites September 29, 2013 8:08PM
The U46 Planetarium in Elgin, built by the Elgin National Watch Co., was deeded to the school district in 1960 before the watch factory closed down. | Joe Cyganowski-For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 1, 2013 6:11AM
ELGIN — About two dozen people gathered under the dome of the U46 Observatory and Planetarium on Friday evening, recounting history and memories, and giggling over photos of original planetarium director Don Tuttle’s trademark plaid ties.
But when the room went dark and the star projector illuminated that night’s constellations in 360 degrees around the dome, it went silent, heavy with awe and shared experiences.
“The star field out of this projector — being over 50 years old, it’s really spectacular,” said Peggy Hernandez, the current planetarium teacher in School District U46.
The Elgin school district celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first classes at the U46 Observatory and Planetarium with a series of public sky shows Friday at the planetarium, on the city’s near-east side at 312 Watch St.
That included children’s shows “One World, One Sky” and “The Magic Tree House: Space Mission” in the afternoon, and viewings of the night’s stars and constellations projected across the dome of the planetarium.
And it culminated in the two evening presentations about the history of the building; the first, featuring visits from several guests of honor: Don Tuttle’s wife, Carol Tuttle; their daughter, Donna Hoppe; and longtime observatory and planetarium secretary Nancy Franklin.
Area residents who had visited the planetarium as U46 students on field trips brought their own children out to the show. Several former members of the after-school Junior Astro League reminisced about building their own telescopes in the basement, and adults who had taken courses at the planetarium through Elgin Community College rushed to find their old seats under the dome.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years,” Carol Tuttle said, looking around her husband’s former office.
The observatory actually is more than 100 years old, built in 1909 by the Elgin National Watch Co., Hernandez said during her presentation. The company was the only watch manufacturer of its day with an observatory dedicated to measuring time, according to the U46 website.
Company employees used the transit telescope upstairs to watch the movement of stars across the lens, Hernandez said. The same stars appeared in the same place at the same time each night. From that, they accurately could mark the time, she said, and Elgin watches famously were advertised as “timed by the stars.”
In the beginning
Before the watch factory closed, it deeded the observatory to the Elgin school district in 1960, Hernandez said.
As luck would have it, U46 had hired Don Tuttle in 1957 as an engineer for its radio station, WEPS, she said. He had worked radios in the U.S. Navy, she said, but had been trained in astronomy at Claremont College in Minnesota.
“Don was an astronomy major in college; and when he got out of college, of course, there were no jobs in astronomy,” said Carol Tuttle, who now lives in Mount Morris. “So when the observatory was given to U46, this was a golden opportunity for him. ... I remember how excited Don was he was finally going to be working in astronomy.”
But Don Tuttle quickly realized the observatory was not a very good classroom, Hernandez said. It was a small room at the top of a staircase with one telescope for 30 students to take turns looking into. The telescope couldn’t move to search for objects in the sky — it wasn’t designed to — and, moreover, students visited in the afternoon, when there was nothing to see, she said.
So he petitioned U46 to add a planetarium, and it was built in the summer of 1963, she said. It was the first of its kind in any school district in Illinois and one of the few owned and operated by a school district in the country, according to the district website.
“It was such an exciting time as far as space travel was concerned,” Carol Tuttle said. “It’s when NASA was shooting off the Saturn flights, and the astronauts were so important to the whole society. That’s what made it such a wonderful time.”
Don Tuttle ran sky shows for visiting classes from district schools and started the Junior Astro League, an after-school program that taught students to build their own telescopes and run that console that controlled the star projector, Hernandez said. He wrote curriculums and other materials that were requested by teachers from across the country as planetariums appeared in other school districts, she said.
In short, Gary Kutina said, “He was an icon.”
‘On chopping block’
Kutina, a high school math teacher in U46, took over as planetarium director when Don Tuttle retired in 1985 — another exciting time for astronomy as the Comet Hale-Bopp passed by Earth, he said.
He remembers several hundred people turning out to watch the comet through telescopes set up in the parking lot at Elgin Community College, he said. And he remembers the “oohs” and “ahhs” from students when he turned on the stars in the planetarium, he said.
“I always thought it wasn’t so much they knew Jupiter was the largest planet or Mars looks red through a telescope,” Kutina said. “Those are the things you can learn from a book. I wanted to make them understand there’s something else out there — the vastness, the awe-inspiring universe.”
But it also was a challenging time for the observatory and planetarium as the district ran into financial trouble, putting it “on the chopping block all the time,” Kutina said.
“I do have some very fond memories of kids and stories, but it was a struggle for those years. We were always under the gun, but we were able to manage and maintain the program,” he said.
Kutina, who lives in Elgin, went from full-time to part-time through the 100th anniversary of the observatory, he said, when Hernandez was hired as planetarium teacher in 2009.
Being part of the history of the planetarium is “pretty neat; and the more I learn about the connection to the watch factory, it’s really neat,” Hernandez said.
Busloads of students come and go from the U46 Observatory and Planetarium pretty much all day, every school day, as the Elgin school district — like many others — stresses STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) education. Last year, she saw nearly 20,000 students, squeezing them two classes at a time into the vinyl benches in the planetarium, she said.
“I can see them coming in: they’re wound up tight,” she said. “I get things rolling, I get it dark in here, and I just love it. After the room was electric when they first sit down, and their just looking up with their jaws hanging open, they’re wanting to learn more. They’re wanting to listen.”
Hernandez will see some private schools, too, as she has availability, and the planetarium has reopened for Scouting groups, public sky shows and some summer Astro Camps, she said.
Hunter Nelson-Peck 8, of Elgin said he has been to the planetarium twice with his class at Washington Elementary School in Elgin, and, he said, “It’s pretty cool.”
The third-grader came to the first sky show Friday evening with his parents, Mike and Heather Nelson-Peck, and 5-year-old brother, Haydn Nelson-Peck, who is gearing up for his first field trip to the planetarium with his kindergarten class. Heather said wanted to make sure her littlest felt comfortable in the space.
Plus, Mike said, he fondly remembers visits to the planetarium as a student at Huff Elementary School in Elgin.
“It always was a fun field trip day. It was a day off school,” he said.
Public sky shows — this year, celebrating the anniversary — typically are held at 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. monthly. Shows are planned on Nov. 11, Jan. 14, Feb. 12, March 13, April 7 and May 9.
More information is available at www.u-46.org/cdps/cditem.cfm?NID=394.