August 22, 2010 by

Jack Horkheimer

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Categories: Education

jhorkheimer.jpgFoley Arthur “Jack” Horkheimer, the award-winning astronomer who entertained millions as the host of the PBS show “Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer,” died on Aug. 20 of a respiratory ailment. He was 72.
Born in Randolph, Wis., Horkheimer was always in poor health. As a child, he suffered from severe allergies, depression and numerous phobias, including acrophobia (fear of heights) and agoraphobia (fear of crowds). Throughout his life, he also battled bronchiectasis, a degenerative lung disease.
Horkheimer’s father, the longtime mayor of Randolph, reportedly urged him to be an athlete, and his mother wanted him to become a priest. He preferred to please people, working as a disc jockey, a jazz organist, a playwright and a nightclub entertainer. After dropping out of Marquette University and the Honolulu School of Fine Arts in Hawaii, Horkheimer attended Purdue for six years, where he studied drama and worked as a writer/producer in Purdue’s Repertory Theatre. Once Horkheimer finally earned a bachelor’s degree, he moved to South Florida because the warm, humid air helped his inflamed lungs.
While Horkheimer never took an accredited astronomy course, his future would soon be written in the stars. A meeting with Art Smith, chief of the Southern Cross Astronomical Society, led to a job running the brand new Space Transit Planetarium (also known as The Miami Planetarium). With a $150,000 Spitz projector at his disposal, Horkheimer created multimedia stargazing shows that were a memorable mix of fact and fantasy. He called it “cosmic theater.”
“A planetarium is not for scientists. It’s not for the Ph.D.’s. It’s for the people,” Horkheimer said in a 1982 profile in The Miami Herald. “A planetarium is supposed to mediate between the scientists and the public. It’s to teach, to tantalize. Real astronomers aren’t supposed to be running planetariums. It’s living death for them. They’re supposed to be researching.”
Over the next 35 years, Horkheimer served as executive director of the planetarium, putting on shows and teaching the public about astronomy. He took his message to the masses with “Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler,” a weekly TV series made available to all PBS stations free of charge. The one- and five-minute episodes offered astronomical lore and advice on what to look for in the night sky. The name was changed to “Star Gazer” in the 1990s to make it easier for children to find the correct Website.
With infectious enthusiasm and over-the-top showmanship, Horkheimer used “Star Gazer” to sell the idea of naked-eye astronomy with a memorable three-word motto: “Keep looking up.” Sky & Telescope Magazine described the show as “arguably the most successful five-minute program in television history.” When “Star Gazer” celebrated its 30th anniversary on Nov. 4, 2006, over 1,500 weekly episodes had been recorded. In recent years, those episodes have been offered on iTunes and YouTube in the form of a video podcast.
Horkheimer was a founding member of the International Planetarium Society, a founding co-editor of “The Planetarian” and a past editor of “Southern Skies.” He won numerous awards, including an Emmy and a Telly, but was most proud of his work encouraging young astronomers to explore the heavens. Each year, The Astronomical League presents The Jack Horkheimer Award for Exceptional Service by a Young Astronomer; the winner receives a $1,000 check and a high-quality telescope.
Horkheimer was a lover of good music, good food and champagne and once collected old Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals. Although his lifelong contributions to popularizing astronomy were occasionally derided by some in the field for not being more academic, the International Astronomical Union honored his efforts by renaming “Asteroid 1999 FD9” to “Asteroid Horkheimer.”
Long before his death, Horkheimer penned a fitting epitaph:
“Keep looking up was my life’s admonition,
I can do little else in my present position.”

One Response to Jack Horkheimer

  1. Bill White

    February 1 2011
    I just learned now that my astronomy hero is gone from this life. I have been very busy with a new baby boy and my oldest son, Tristan, (4) is loving astronomy just like my wife and me. I was showing him episodes of recent celestial events when I noticed that Jack Horkheimer passed away.
    I grew up in northwest NJ and was a Dr. Who fanatic. I always signed off with the NJ PBS station as they ended with Star Hustler. This was in 1984. I was 14 and in awe of that 5 minute show. It helped me become more serious and absolutely passionate about astronomy. Until I was talked out of it I wanted to be an astronomer, but I never stopped “looking up!”
    I have enjoyed life more because of observational astronomy as well as endless reading, and because of Jack Horkheimer. He educated me and inspired me. I absolutely loved him. My wife grew up in Baltimore and watched him around the same time period. It was great when we both discovered that.
    Since Jack apparently has no living relatives, I know that everyone there at the Miami planetarium is his family and I wish to offer my condolences as well as my congratulations on having had the opportunity to know and work with him. The world over is truly and unarguably a better place because of his life and how he chose to spend and share it. Thank you to you all who supported him and for letting him talk you into his world of ideas over 30 years ago!
    God bless you all, and goodbye for now, Jack.
    Bill White

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