The Elgin School District U-46 Planetarium
Fifty years of learning under the stars
By Peggy Hernandez, October 2013
In 1963 the space race was on, the Russian satellite Sputnik had already orbited the Earth and John F. Kennedy had recently announced plans to send U. S. astronauts Moon, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard”. In that year the Elgin School District U-46 had a Spitz A3P planetarium projector installed in a newly constructed addition to the back of the old Elgin National Watch Company Observatory that was deeded over to the District for $1.00 in 1960 by the defunct Elgin National Watch Company.
Mr. Donald Tuttle was a radio man during his stint in the US Navy and had an astronomy degree. He needed a job. The Elgin School District U-46 hired him in 1960 as the part time, commercially licensed WEPS radio station (which U-46 still owns!) Chief Engineer. In 1962 Don was chief radio engineer, physics teacher at EHS, and also offered the observatory to teach in. He was given the reins to develop an astronomy program for grades K-14. He brought classes in to tour the Observatory, but he quickly knew what he needed was a planetarium, not a fifty year old, museum like transit scope. A grant was secured through the National Defense Education Act to partially fund a brand new planetarium. The total cost of the addition, projector and dome, installation, benches, audio system and lighting was $24,784, half of which was paid for by the Act. It was only the fourth planetarium to be installed in the state and the first one in a school district in IL. Mr. Tuttle worked side by side to install the projector with the technicians from Spitz, Inc that is still in operation today. It has been tenderly cared for over the years and still produces a pristine simulation of the night sky.
After 22 years of presenting lessons with it, he knew that machine “like the back of his hand.” Don Tuttle was the U-46 Planetarium teacher from 1963-1985. He was a charter member and eventually president of the Great Lakes Planetarium Association, a community of educators and planetarium directors that work to better the experience for all visitors to planetariums across the midwest. He piloted astronomy curricular materials. Throughout 1964-1966 Mr. Tuttle worked on classes to earn his Master’s degree in Education, ran WEPS radio station and built the blossoming planetarium program. He developed lesson plans and activities in the planetarium that were sought out by planetarium teachers across the country. He initiated the Jr. Astro Society in 1965 that brought gifted students from across the district to learn how to make telescopes, operate the projector, write a scientific newsletter, work on and operate radio equipment and understand astronomy to advanced degree. The Jr. Astro Society continued through the 1990s. The Jr. Astro Society members that come
back to visit this old building run the gamut of professional careers. I have personally met a NASA Capsule Commander for the ISS that was inspired by Mr. Tuttle when he was a youngster. There have been engineers, software experts, electricians and college astronomy professors that stop by to either see a public show or just simply want to walk through to remember their experience here.
During his years here Mr. Tuttle improved the planetarium experience to increase audio visual interest with reel to reel films at first, then on to slide shows synchronized with cassette tapes to enrich the star viewing portion of the show. His secretary, Nancy Topolewski-Franklin was instrumental in development and caretaking of these slide shows/artwork and the scheduling of about 20,000 visitors per year among other planetarium care-taking duties. December 1984 held Mr. Tuttle’s 1000th presentation of The Star of Bethlehem. It was his favorite program permitting him to combine history, geography, literature, astronomy and religion in one 1 hour program. In 1985 the 500,000th visitor walked through the doors. Amanda Hise, a 3rd grader at Lord’s Park elementary school was the recipient of a slew of educational prizes. Today the U-46 planetarium has seen over 1 million visitors.
Mr. Tuttle retired in 1985, but taught astronomy at ECC for many years after. He was in the steel drum band at ECC, made amazing quilts and still participated in astronomy endeavors after his retirement. Sadly, he passed away in 2010.
In 1985 Gary Kutina took over as planetarium teacher. He was a math and science teacher in U-46 with degrees in meteorology and astronomy. He continued the Jr. Astro Society for a number of years and had overseen necessary improvements to the projector and building in general. As with Mr. Tuttle the priority for the planetarium teacher is student learning. Lessons in the planetarium continued and were improved with Mr. Kutina’s photography skills, technological know-how and projector upgrades. He also undertook the huge job of getting the building recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. He was awarded the plaque for the building in 1994. In the 1990s he also worked with the Planetary Society to share space with and to allow for the building to be open for shows on the weekends with displays of meteorites and programs for youngsters.
This was no longer the Sputnik era. The space race was over. Students were playing with video games and organized sports, not backyard rockets and telescope grinding. Mr. Kutina was cut to part time planetarium and part time high school math teacher. He retired in 2006, but continued as a part time retiree presenting lessons in the planetarium for a few years.
In 2009 I was hired to become the full time planetarium teacher. I had taught elementary students for a few years and then middle school science for 15 years in U-46. I earned my National Board Certification in Science in 2005. I began star gazing nights on the Eastview Middle School football field when my 8th graders were assigned a star journal. It grew to include all 8th graders and eventually grew to Tri County State Park in Bartlett. I was ecstatic when I was hired to become the next planetarium teacher. The Elgin School District U-46 Planetarium continues to evolve. A new digital full dome projector was installed in 2011 to supplement the original Spitz star projector. Boy and Girl Scout groups are coming to sessions again. There have been STEM events here, summer Astro Camp for middle schoolers, neighborhood nights, and the popular public shows are once again running on certain evenings throughout the school year.
And as usual, thousands of U-46 students pass through the doors each year to slide into these old benches to gaze at the stars and constellations to try to understand the Earth’s place in space, and learn the science behind it all.