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The Story Behind the Morris Museum Astronomical Society

In January of 1972, a Celestron Schmitt Cassegrain C-8 telescope was donated by Many Bhuta to the Morris Museum.  Many had purchased the C-8 with terrestrial photography in mind,  but soon found that the C-8 would prove to be unsuitable for his purposes.  In those days, 8 inch Cassegrains were not as common as they are today, and  backyard astronomy was still, for most people, a novel concept.  Rather than allow this new and fascinating piece of equipment to languish in the closet, Many thought it should be put to better use.  He contacted Irene Sacks who at the time was in charge of the Science programs for the Morris Museum and made the decision to make a donation of the scope.   For just about anyone, simply having a new telescope is enough to inspire forays into the night, and the Museum found itself no less inspired.  The consensus was that since the C-8 had been so generously donated, that the next logical step would be to create a program around it.  I wouldn't be long before small group get togethers started with outings to look through the newly acquired C-8.  Back then, just a few people would gather to learn the telescope and wander the skies.   Following the organizational model of the recently formed Morris Museum Mineralogical Society,  this group became the foundation of what is today, the Morris Museum Astronomical Society.  The Society's first liaison to the Museum would be Irene Sacks who began some of the first programs such as Astronomy Workshops at the Museum for grammar school students.  By April of 1972, the newly formed MMAS held it's first formal meeting.  Its members were Bill Sacks, Many Bhuta, Alex Yankaskas, and Bill MacDermid.  The guest speaker would be David Targan, who discussed and demonstrated the proper use of the C-8.  David already had a C-8 of his own and was familiar with the workings of this telescope.  At the time, his interests lay in the Schmidt camera and astrophotography as well as the C-8.

Now, the MMAS was an official club under the auspices of the Morris Museum.   Charter membership was extended to Jack Clark as well since he was Curator of Geology for the Museum, and was at the time considered to be the Museum "science guy".   Membership grew rapidly and not long after the Club's inception was the group able to publish the first edition of it's newsletter, christened: "The Heavenly Herald"  The Club found increasing enthusiasm and excitement when on July 10th, 1972 a partial Lunar eclipse occurred followed in August with a wonderful display of the Perseid meteors.

Meanwhile in 1973, another Morristown resident visited the Museum with the intention of donating a 4 1/4" F-10 Newtonian he had.  On this chance visit, Joe Molnar would hear of the newly forming Astronomical Society, and with interest piqued, would soon find himself drawn into it's ranks.  Observing from the grounds was limited by the Museum building.  The C-8 did not yet have a tripod, but was used with an equatorial wedge and placed on a table top.   As is the way with all backyard astronomy, like greener pastures, a better sky is a never ending quest.  Joe suggested, the Museum said "yes", and the C-8 would now find itself repositioned atop the roof of the Museum.  The view from above was certainly much improved, but there was one big drawback -- vibration.  Second only to finding a great sky, is keeping a portable telescope quiet.  An agreed to procedure was soon established for this shaky roof.  Once the telescope was set up and an object found to observe, the observer would simply say "walk softly" and the object could be enjoyed until the next person would take to the eyepiece.  Amateur observing must always be a cooperative experience, and although the roof was prone to vibration, it did afford a relatively unobstructed view of the sky.   Even though there was some hopeful talk of building an observatory, the members would meet on the roof to observe for the next six years.  Shortly before 1979, the more stationary 'Celestron pier' was purchased making the C-8 more useable than it had been on the table.  The Celestron pier worked well, but the vibrations became more of a problem as membership grew.   The Museum said "yes" again and gave permission for a more permanent placement of a pier close to the back of their building.

A metals supply company was found willing to donate a section of  8" well casing approximately eight feet in length onto which the Celestron cap would be a perfect fit.  Irene Sacks and Joe Molnar ventured into New Jersey's heavy industrial regions and retrieved what would become the C-8's new pier.  This "great pipe" was brought to the site and buried in concrete leaving some four feet exposed.  Another member, Jeff Beck, found that his father would be able to donate all the lumber necessary to build a twelve foot square deck to surround the new pier.  Placed on a low, open block foundation, the deck was isolated from the pier providing for the first time, relatively vibration-free use of the C-8.  In fact, the deck system worked out so well that it began a renewed interest in a permanent observatory.

Although the new MMAS had a constitution establishing its own elected board, all decisions regarding the club were still passed along by the liaison to the Museum for approval.  Irene Sacks proved to be a capable liaison, but found the MMAS growing beyond the cradle and becoming a mature organization attracting skilled and knowledgeable members.   In 1980, when the MMAS was beginning to make some decisions on it's own, Irene thought that the MMAS was becoming less a Museum controlled club than an independent organization and sought to replace the MMAS Board with only those who were members of the Museum.  That same year, Irene took a leave of absence from her position at the Museum.  For almost two years the MMAS found itself without an executive board.  The group continued to meet to observe and to hold general meetings, but among it's ranks persisted a great need to reorganize and regain more control of its own.   A 'Club delegation' of sorts met with the Museum Director at the time who was somewhat surprised to find the MMAS in such discord.  Soon, the group was reorganized and a new Board established.   Eventually, issues unrelated to the Astronomy Club found Irene leaving her staff position at the Morris Museum.   On so many late night observing sessions at the Museum, staff member Peter Stevens found himself to be the one who was looking after the Club more and more.   Peter would become an asset to the club, and see continual increases in responsibility and decision making on the part of the club's own board of directors throughout his tenure.

In 1982, Leonard Pavia, a part time Museum staff member became our official liaison, bringing with him a great enthusiasm for observing, telescope making and the energy to pursue the building of the first MMAS observatory on the Morris Museum grounds.  The Montclair Telescope Club had built an F-4 Newtonian telescope and was looking to find an appropriate home for it.  Member Eric Jacobus was aware of this telescope and the fact that the Montclair Club would be more than willing to loan it to the Museum if the MMAS could provide an observatory in which to house it.  With Leonard's persistence, permission was given to construct a permanent observatory.  Leonard found a construction company to donate the building of the floor and walls at the cost of materials!  The observatory was, at first, a single room building to which club members worked to add a low pitch sliding roof.  This roof, at first was difficult to open.  Then Member Art Crane came up with a workable electric pulley system that would make observing available to all members.  This new building was a change in location from the existing pier and deck.  The old deck was removed and the 8" well casing -- cement and all, was dug up and moved to the new site further away from the Museum building behind the observatory where it was now to be buried in sand to further dampen any vibration and a new deck constructed, this time with benches for seating.

A somewhat spacious telescope area would house the 16 inch "Kimball", and a 12" fork-mounted reflector built by Leonard Pavia was installed on a steel pier.  In anticipation of the many cold nights the club would spend under the stars, a "warm-room" was added later -- just a step down through a doorway where an observer could take the chill off with microwave popcorn, or some hot chocolate.  For objects lower on the Southern horizon, a snack-bar type flap was left in the main telescope room that could be opened to point the Kimball beneath the roof-rail. 

The observatory was the structure that gave the MMAS it's observing capabilities.  For years to come, it would serve both for observing and a place where the board or the various committees would meet to discuss club business, or members could gather for a more social night of observing.  The Observatory was also the setting for countless  "Public Nights", where members of the MMAS would open their doors and invite the public to spend an evening enjoying a program and to experience views through telescopes otherwise unavailable to them.  In April of 1986, the MMAS observatory realized it's new found significance when almost four thousand people arrived on a Saturday evening to see the return of Comet Halley.  When reports in the Press had given the impression that Halley would be visible for only a few nights, the lines of  people eager to see the famous comet stretched around the block.  There were so many people that viewing by all would be impossible in one evening.  But when it became known that several people who came to the observatory that night remembered the comet first hand as children in 1910, club members found them in the crowd and brought them up to the observatory, for the comet was to set in a matter of a couple hours.  One woman in particular would see Comet Halley for the first time, since her mother had forbidden her to view the comet when she was eight years old for fear of "Comet Poisoning"...

The MMAS as a growing organization, would, as many clubs, experience it's share of growing-pains.  As membership rolls grew and outside interests exerted pressure for change and leadership of the club, the MMAS found in itself the organizational strength of its constitution and the dedication of its loyal members to weather the struggles and storms that at times seemed to threaten the very existence of the club.

By 1987, the MMAS could be defined by its observatory and the general meetings it held once a month.  As always, these meetings were open to the public and could feature anything from a guest speaker's presentation, an equipment demonstration, slide show or a video for a Winter meeting where lower attendance might be expected.   As Winter winds would make the best skies of the year barely tolerable to even our most intrepid observers, the MMAS has never been at a loss for planning activities.  What was, over the years to become the Club's signature public event was Astronomy Day.   Always held in the Spring, the MMAS would partner with the Morris Museum for an all-day festival run by club members and Museum Staff to bring the energy and excitement of Amateur Astronomy to as many inquiring Parents and Kids as possible.   Not every year has seen an MMAS Astronomy Day, but the event has always been on the minds of it's members.   It has always been a very involved endeavor, carefully organized over the Winter months and brought to fruition with telescope displays, kids' craft projects, exhibits and any variety of guest speakers and demonstrations.


During these times, the observatory would experience both excitement and an upheaval.  Leonard Pavia began an ambitious project to incorporate his 12" reflector into a combination telescope featuring a new 17.5" mirror.  As liaison, Mr. Pavia exercised an increased control over the MMAS observatory, and with the addition of another very large telescope, reconfigured the observatory's usable space.  Many members at the time would come to feel that even with the best of intentions, the added telescope would devalue the observatory's usefulness as a public facility.


Any discord over the observatory would soon be overshadowed in 1989 by the prospect of Museum expansion.  When the Morris Museum found itself in a position to add additional educational and gallery space, it was an opportunity not to be missed.  With the increase in Museum space, the MMAS knew it would always have a home for its general meetings, but would it still have an observatory?  With the prospect of loosing the observatory that had been built by club volunteers, Leonard Pavia worked very hard to persuade the Museum to include a replacement observatory in the building plans.  And indeed, drawings of the revitalized Morris Museum included a new observatory atop the elevators of a southwest tower. 


Unfortunately, as is the way with many ambitious projects, money would become the driving issue, and such luxuries as a new observatory among others, was first redesigned, and then relocated, but ultimately dropped from future plans.  A new home for the Kimball-Kennedy was just not to be -- at least not in Morristown.


In 1989, the MMAS Observatory was razed as the Museum proceeded with it's expansion.  The 16" Kimball, stored for a time in the Museum garages, was ultimately returned to the Montclair Telescope Club having been lent on the condition that it be housed in a working observatory.  Mr. Pavia's 17.5" scope would relocate to his home in Florham Park, and the MMAS would transform itself into a more mobile observing group, concentrating on membership, holding its monthly meetings for the public, and putting much greater emphasis on it's Outreach Program, where members with their own telescopes and the club C-8  would in effect "take observing on the road".


The MMAS board of directors had enjoyed a tradition of holding their "warm room" meetings in the observatory for some time, but after the demise of the MMAS building in Morristown a new site would have to be found.  While many astronomy clubs might meet in  members' homes, the MMAS had become used to the stability of a constant location.  Luckily a new venue was found in Roned Printing in East Hanover.  This location was volunteered by Ron Russo, and provided enough space not only for a monthly Board meeting, but room for some equipment storage as well as space for the occasional Qualified Observer Class and group project.   Although the available space has changed over the years, the East Hanover location continues to provide a stable location for the MMAS to hold it's board and committee meetings.


The issue of "telescopes without a home" would persist in the minds of members for a long time to come.  What is an Astronomy Club without an observatory?  Over the years, many locations were explored.  A sister Club, the Skylands Stargazers, was even formed for the purpose of exploring new observing site possibilities and to act as an independent entity to further the interests of the MMAS.  In 1992, a small group of amateur astronomers heard of properties that were acquired by the New Jersey Park Service at Jenny Jump State Park in Hope, N.J.  They were able to convince the Park Service that this sizeable tract of land with a house still standing that lay across the mountain top could become a viable part of the Park in the form of an astronomical observing site available to the visiting public.


For the MMAS, this was a golden opportunity.  The MMAS and the Skylands became supporting member Clubs of what would be the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey at Jenny Jump.   Through this organization, a new site was secured by the Skylands Stargazers for the construction of a new observatory.


In a coincidental turn of events, in 1998, the 16" Kimball-Kennedy telescope that had been removed to Newton, N.J., still the property of the Montclair Telescope Club, was donated by the members to the UACNJ.  As the State organization continued to grow and new member clubs joined, they too began to donate telescopes and equipment.  It wouldn't be long before space in the restored house became an issue and the large Kimball-Kennedy was again thought to need a more appropriate home.  As the new observatory neared completion, the UACNJ decided that rather than to have the old 16" remain dark, they would place it on permanent loan to the Skylands Observatory.  This loan was gladly received and the irony that the Kimball had somehow traveled full circle over the years to once again find itself in the care of the MMAS was not lost on it's membership. 


In the last thirty years, the MMAS has seen both times of turmoil and enjoyed much longer times of stability.  It's members have set up their telescopes in a thousand places.  The Outreach Program continues to thrive and grow yearly as more schools and organizations take advantage of members' eagerness to bring their telescopes to many locations in the North Jersey area and share their love of the sky.  Today, the MMAS enjoys the energy, support and enthusiasm of the Morris Museum Staff who continue to share their facility providing space for the monthly general meetings, special events, and Astronomy Day.  In these years, some of the small band of dedicated "astronomers" who founded the club have stayed on, but most have gone.  'Science guy' Jack Clark left the Morris Museum long ago to accept the Directorship of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich Connecticut.  No longer with us, Art Crane is remembered not only for his service as President and supporting member, but for the many astronomical articles he wrote for the Heavenly Herald.   Irwin "Van" Vanderhoof is remembered as a dedicated member, friend and benefactor to the MMAS.  David Targan, the Club's very first guest speaker, probably took this hobby of astronomy further than any other member, and is working today as a professional astronomer.  


Members of the Morris Museum Astronomical Society will come and go, leaving part of themselves behind and, as we would like to think, take some of their MMAS experience with them.  Only through it's dedicated members will the MMAS continue to thrive for many years to come.  As we continue to bring our love and knowledge of the night sky to all those who are willing to spend a cold evening with us to look through a telescope for the first time,  it is in this small way we can all help make the world a better place.

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