Keep Looking Up! Thank you, Jack Horkheimer

For the week ending December, 25, 2010

Some people are cool in uncool ways. Or maybe they’re uncool in cool ways. They are the people who make you feel good about liking something that’s not popular. And when they communicate about the subject, you feel a connection. Jack Horkheimer was one of those people. He died a few months ago after spending about half his 72 years telling us all about the night sky and imploring us to keep looking up.

When I discovered his PBS program, it was called Star Hustler. I was probably 12 years old. An announcer, speaking over an electronic version of a classical music piece by Claude Debussy, announced, “Some people hustle pool, some people hustle cars; then there’s that man you heard about, the one who hustles stars!”

I don’t remember what Jack told me about in that first episode I saw. But I remember being so thrilled that such a program was on. It became the thing to stay up late for every Friday night. For some reason, PBS stations usually put it on real late at night and KETC in St. Louis was no exception. Despite that injustice, kids and adults who liked astronomy watched it regularly. For us, Jack Horkheimer was a household name.

He told us fun facts about the stars and planets and how to find them, even if we didn’t have telescopes. He told us astronomy stories that originated in ancient empires. He engaged us in astronomy and made it a better hobby rather than just a spectator sport. There were a few summer solstices for which I stayed up all night to document what happens all around at sunrise in an attempt to win a prize for an outstanding report.

I don’t remember what the prize was, but I didn’t win. However, I did get a signed note from Jack telling me that the Star Hustler people really liked my poem. I don’t think my poem was really that good. I remember something to the effect of:

I didn’t see the dawn but heard the call of a rooster

The lens he used to see the light must have been a booster!

I think the crickets stopped chirping as the morning brightened.

I didn’t see every episode of Star Hustler. I missed some during the time the name changed to Stargazer. That was after the Internet became widely available, but before parental controls had come of age. Kids were going to search engines and looking up “star hustler”. Their parents weren’t happy about other things associated with the word “hustler” coming up.

Stargazer endured, even as some PBS stations dropped it from their lineups. The show eventually became available on the Internet. The man who had mixed feelings about it when it started isn’t there anymore, but the Stargazer show goes on. And so does the show in the sky. That’s the one Jack kept telling us how to see just before he implored, “Keep looking up!”