Once a year when I was in elementary school our class would take a field trip to the local planetarium. We’d get to the planetarium on a school bus — a novelty for me since I was a “walker”. The bus would drop us off in front of the planetarium and we’d file into the domed white building. Inside the planetarium, it was cool and dimly lit, almost church-like. We were instructed to find a seat on one of the pew-like benches that encircled the large star projector. The backs of the benches were tilted to make it easy to lean back and look at the dome over our heads on which the projector would project the stars and planets.
Once seated, the planetarium teacher, Mr. Tuttle, would step up to the podium and welcome us to the planetarium. He’d slowly dim the lights and take us on an amazing journey that involved sunset, moonrise, constellations, planets, and an uncountable number of stars. For several years all I saw was a blur because I was nearsighted but had not gotten glasses yet. Once I got glasses, I was awed by the number of stars on the screen. The huge star projector seemed to move (perhaps it did) and sometimes I’d pretend it was a monster.
I don’t know that I ever talked to Mr. Tuttle when I was in grade school, but I vividly remember him and his lessons. I did have the opportunity to talk to him when I was in high school. I’d signed up to walk for the “Hike for Hunger” in the early 1970’s with my best friend, Cindy. Her father was a teacher and a friend of Mr. Tuttle. Because of that connection, Mr. Tuttle walked with Cindy and me for most of the 25 miles that day. I felt honored beyond words that of all the other students in the crowd, he chose us to walk with.
I never really got “into” astronomy and although I can name all the planets and a handful of constellations, I don’t know where they will be in the sky on any given evening. However, I love looking at the night sky. I get updates from Spaceweather.com telling me when something cool is going to happen in the sky and sometimes I remember to watch for it and when I stand outside looking up to the heavens I always think of Mr. Tuttle — even though I’ve known other planetarium directors, having taught elementary school.
A few days before I set off on my trip to Illinois I read on Facebook that Mr. Tuttle had died the previous Sunday and that a memorial service would be held for him the following Saturday. I wanted to go to the memorial service because it was for a man who I thought about several times a month.
I did go to the service and am glad I did. I discovered that he was more than a planetarium director. He was a loving father and husband, a musician, a maker of quilts and an active church member (of the church in which I was baptized).
I did not know, as a child, that Mr. Tuttle was religious. It never occurred to me to think about it. If I had thought about it — years later — I would probably have thought that since he was a scientist, he probably was not very involved in a church. Sitting in the church on Saturday during Mr. Tuttle’s memorial service, I was struck by how similar being in the planetarium was to being in a church. The benches were wooden pews. The atmosphere was serene. If I recall correctly, there was even a “pulpit” of sorts where Mr. Tuttle would stand and tell us about the stars.
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