Jack Horkheimer, who kept many people informed on current sky events with his extremely short “Star Hustler” and “Star Gazer” TV segments, died on Friday at the age of 72, according to the magazine Sky and Telescope. (Via Slashdot.)
Episode 1708, his last, will air on the first of September and feature the Summer Triangle. The next month of shows will be filmed by another staffer from the Miami planetarium he ran; what happens after that is up in the air.
Mr. Horkheimer will be missed. I hope his show, and his impact on astronomy education, will continue. One commenter on Slashdot recalled:
Back in the mid-80s our local PBS affiliate ran it before signing off during the weekends. It was one of the few things that made any childhood fear of the dark immediately dissipate. I’m not sure if it was because he was so enthusiastic or the sweet, gentle music or a presentation that was instantly accessible and all inclusive.
I can remember one night he was talking about Venus and that you could see it with a pair of binoculars and if you didn’t have any, just use a pair of toilet paper tubes. I rushed to the bathroom, ripped two tubes out, dashed to the yard and *GASP* saw it! It was one of those moments that I’ll never forget. Thanks, Jack.
That is what education is all about: showing that the world is comprehensible, pointing out its wonders, telling you how to see them for yourself, and helping you to remember experience and incorporate it into your mind.
There is a reason why Martianus Capella, and the medieval universities, named astronomy one of the Seven Liberal Arts, which were also the seven key prerequisites to studying theology and the Bible. As St. Gregory Thaumaturgus described the practice in his panegyric farewell speech for his teacher, Origen:
“….he also took in hand that humble capacity of mind of our amazement at the magnitude, the wonder, and the magnificent and absolutely wise construction of the world, and in our marvelling in a reasonless way and being overpowered with fear, and in our not knowing what conclusion to draw, like the irrational creatures. He aroused and corrected that by other studies in natural science… he filled our minds with a rational instead of an irrational wonder at the sacred economy of the universe, and the blameless constitution of all things. This is that sublime and heavenly study which is taught by natural philosophy— a science most attractive to all.
“And…[by] astronomy, whose course is on high… he lifted us up to the things that are highest above us; while he made heaven passable to us by the help of each of these sciences, as though they were ladders reaching the skies.”
Astronomy magazine points in their blog to their 2006 profile of Horkheimer. This quotes Horkheimer as saying, with characteristic whimsy, about all astronomy media: “These are all bricks in the cosmic yellow brick road that leads to cosmic Oz — which is an understanding of who and where you are in time and space… I can’t completely comprehend the universe, but I can comprehend a portion of it. That’s what I find so magnificent, that I’m part of the universe that I’m contemplating.”
Foley Arthur Horkheimer was born in 1938. According to the Portage Daily Register in Wisconsin, his father, a successful businessman and local politician, encouraged him to play sports despite constant pain from his lungs (probably in the hope that his son would outgrow his respiratory troubles through exercise, like Teddy Roosevelt). Unfortunately, this treatment only caused the man to feel that he was a constant disappointment to his father. His family tried all sorts of other therapies for his illness, including having him bombarded with radiation. All this got him was radiation sickness.
He graduated in 1956 from Campion Jesuit High School, a Jesuit-run boarding school in Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin. He became a professional jazz musician on piano and jazz organ, touring under the names “Horky” and “Jack Foley”. He apparently had a fair amount of success, but ultimately was unsatisfied; bronchiecstasis, a congenital lung disease, continued to dog him, and he had spiritual troubles connected to his illness. He tried studying to become a priest, and then took some pre-med at Purdue. Moving to dreams of becoming a playwright, he graduated from Purdue with a degree in drama. Meanwhile, he always maintained a strong interest in amateur stargazing, which had been planted in him by his grandfather in summers on his farm.
At the age of 26, in 1964, he moved down to Miami for his health. Like many Catholics caught up in the turmoil of the 1960’s and the post-conciliar weirdness, he said that “I had dumped my strict Jesuit Catholicism by that time and I needed a substitute.” He visited the planetarium at night and had a moment of spiritual transformation. “I was in awe of the cosmos… I looked at the stars and found a kind of existentialism. I believe we are all part of the cosmos.” (He would later express this phase of his spiritual life in the 1972 planetarium show “Child of the Universe”, inspired by that favorite poem for Seventies wall decor, “Desiderata”.)
The Miami Museum of Science needed planetarium volunteers, and wanted somebody to write up some new planetarium shows. Suddenly, a stargazer had an outlet for his interest in science drama. He invented a whole new format for the Miami planetarium, “astrodocudramas with live star shows and music”. By 1967, he was working there full time, and in 1973, he was made planetarium director. Various local news and childrens’ shows had him on as a science commenter, which eventually led to an offer of a few PBS shows about astronomy. He asked in return that they help him develop his 5 minute short segment series, and the rest is history.
But from its debut in 1976 until the time his show went national in 1985, Horkheimer’s persona was apparently more poetic and formal; Astronomy magazine compares his older style of delivery to John Stossel. It was the national PBS folks who insisted that he be more urgent and funny, an entertainer instead of a presenter. He stated in one newspaper profile that he truly hated the character for the first two years; and that although he came to like it, it was a part he played and not anything based on himself. Apparently he seldom broke character in public, because he wanted to keep up the excitement over astronomy; but it was a sacrificial act, not a natural one.
From the beginning, Horkheimer also insisted on doing the show as part of his planetarium duties. He never made a dime off the series. (After his father died in 1974, he was apparently left reasonably well off… but still, few people would have done that.) All proceeds from video sales went back into the show’s production budget, which allowed PBS to distribute it for free.
Meanwhile, he fought colon cancer successfully, and it took until 2010 for his lung disease to kill him, though his gravestone has been waiting for him in Randolph, Wisconsin for many years, on a plot next to his mother and father’s graves.
Horkheimer offered up his gravestone’s epitaph in his online bio:
“‘Keep Looking Up’ was my life’s admonition.
I can do little else in my present position.”
Horkheimer once told the Miami Herald that one of the cornerstones of his spiritual life was a late-night radio rabbi he overheard defining prayer as focusing primarily on the wonder of God’s creative power. “When he said that, the stars became three-dimensional. I saw the heavens in 3-D. I suddenly realized, this mystery that I cannot fathom, this isn’t a loss, this is an incredible gain.”
I’m sure that, like all of us, he had his sins and serious failings. But it is my prayer that, like the wise men who followed a star and found the Lord Himself waiting, Jack Horkheimer has been welcomed into the house of His Creator, who is also the Redeemer of His Creation. If his work helped you, it would behoove you to remember his soul in your prayers as well.
Goodbye, Mr. Horkheimer. Pray for us to keep looking up.
UPDATE: In accordance with the first comment, I’ve changed some info. As always, thank you very kindly for correcting my facts!
(I don’t think it’s just some Murphy’s Law of Google, that people find you only when you mess up. I think I overused a surname again. Bad habit, in an age of search engines.)