Gift Provides Hope With New Observatory
Posted September 6, 2001
HOLLAND -- 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.