posted September 6, 2001

Gift Builds Observatory

A gift prompted by one former faculty member in memory of another has provided a new learning opportunity for students at Hope College.

The college has built an observatory with support from a $20,000 grant from Dr. James W. Seeser through the Saint Louis Community Foundation. The observatory, featuring a 12-inch telescope in a six-foot-diameter, computer-controlled dome, as well as related equipment, was installed on the roof of VanderWerf Hall in mid August.

Seeser taught at Hope from 1970 to 1976, serving on the physics faculty and computer science faculty. He recommended the project in honor of Dr. Harry Frissel in recognition of Frissel's mentorship while they were faculty colleagues at Hope. Harry Frissel, who was on the college's physics faculty from 1948 until retiring in 1985, died on March 18, 2000, at age 79.

"Harry Frissel was the department chair when I was hired to teach physics at Hope," said Seeser, who now lives in St. Louis, Mo., and recently retired as vice president- technology from OCLI, a Division of JDS Uniphase, after 18 years of service in various technical and business roles. "As one of the many 'young Turks' who came to Hope in those years, I had a lot of energy but no sophistication at all about how to be an effective college professor. I learned much from all of the members of the department, including David Marker, Jim van Putten, Dick Brockmeier and Jim Toevs. Harry quietly supported this boisterous group with all his patience and skills."

"Beginning with arranging a place to stay in a lake cottage, and continuing over the years with lots of good coaching and tolerance for my mistakes, Harry mentored me on the 'soft side' of being a young professor," he said. "I also learned to share his love of teaching physics through the medium of meaningful, advanced laboratory experiments. It seemed fitting to honor him in this way."

The observatory, its installation coordinated with Brad Mulder of the college's physics laboratories staff, will significantly enhance the department's program, according to Dr. Peter Gonthier, professor of physics, who teaches the astronomy-related courses at the college and headed the equipment's installation.

"It's pretty exciting," he said. "This will give us the ability to image and do some sophisticated experiments ourselves. In the past we've used telescope time accessible through a modem connection, but having our own instrument will give us more flexibility and more opportunities in teaching and research."

The new telescope will offer its views of the heavens not to rooftop-based humans looking through it with the naked eye, but via computer control and cable connections that will make its images available in classrooms and laboratories throughout the building.

The precision tracking and guiding of the telescope with imaging capability, coupled with the telescope's power and attendant filters and software, will serve to complement the portable telescopes the department has been using, according to Gonthier. He noted that the at-will availability of Hope's observatory will be a vast improvement over borrowing time from other sites -- demand nationwide, he said, makes it necessary to schedule work six months in advance.

The college has had at least two other permanent observatories in its history. The first, the Maria L. Ackerman Hoyt Observatory, was built in 1894 on a hill near Columbia Avenue and 12th Street. The observatory and hill were removed in 1941. The second was built by then-senior Jim Riggs in 1976 with the encouragement of the late Dr. Richard Brockmeier, who was a member of the Hope physics and computer science faculties from 1966 to 1993 and had a strong interest in astronomy. Also since removed, it was located on the Buys Athletic Fields near Fairbanks Avenue.

The VanderWerf roof has also served as an observatory for the college's portable telescopes, although the surrounding city lights, Gonthier noted, have limited the site's usefulness for such instruments -- one reason that Riggs built the observatory on the Fairbanks site a quarter century before. In recent years, Gonthier has taken the telescopes and classes to less developed West Michigan locales. He noted that the new instrument's filters, tracking and imaging, and the dome, should limit the impact of the nearby lights.