History of the Twin City Amateur Astronomers
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Years of Public Service, 1979-1984
The year 1979 started off with a real media event. There was a 78% partial eclipse of the Sun
on February 26. Club members assembled on the “quad” of ISU and instructed several hundred
college students, faculty and staff members, and school children how to safely observe the
eclipse. Numerous telescopes were set up among the mounds of snow under a crystalline blue
sky. At eclipse maximum over 300 persons were present. Several club members even saw the
planet Venus without optical aid just west of the Sun. The next day a full-page display of the
club’s observing activities appeared in the ISU student newspaper, the Daily Vidette.
Encouraged by the Astronomical League, the TCAA presented the first of several
“Astronomy Day” displays at Eastland Shopping Center on April 7, 1979. Nine telescopes
(including a 4-inch Alvin Clark refractor brought from Columbus, Ohio, by amateur astronomer
Doug Wereb) were on display. Bill Zaffiri demonstrated telescope mirror making. Mike Miller
put up a display of space stamps and space mission insignia. Carl Wenning was also present with
the six lunar samples returned by the Apollo moon missions. The entire event generated
significant public interest.48
Figure 20: Carl Wenning, the new planetarium director at ISU, stands astride the star projector
Figure 21: Eastland Mall display featuring six lunar samples in a Plexiglas disk
Upon the suggestion of park naturalist Nancy Morgan, the TCAA began to present lectures
and observing sessions for the campers and visitors at Moraine View State Park. Sixty persons
were present for a constellation mythology talk and M-object observing program held in the
campground on July 20, 1979 – the tenth anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing.
The club membership was very happy to confer upon John and Bertha Kieviet the first
Lifelong Honorary Memberships at the February 1980 Annual Meeting. This award was
presented after 20 years of dedicated service to the club. Carl Wenning, by presenting a plaque on
behalf of the TCAA, conferred the honor. This was the last tribute paid by the club to co-founder
John Kieviet. He would die on October 28, 1981 from a stroke.50 (Years later, after the passing of
Bertha Kieviet, the club instituted the John & Bertha Kieviet Founders Award in their honor.51)
Figure 22: Kieviets receive honor of lifelong honorary membership at 1980 Annual Meeting
Figure 23: John Kieviet, co-founder of the TCAA, shortly before his death in 1981
Bob Finnigan was very influential in turning the interest of club members to anthropology at
this time. Bob had visited the Mayan and Aztec ruins in Mexico earlier, and his interest turned to
cultural anthropology. Under the guidance of Gary Skinner,49 TCAAers visited Dickson Mounds
near Havana, IL, in October. Under the leadership of Bob Finnigan and Weldon Schuette, club
members (typically Skinner, Miller, Wenning, and Sutton) made several group visits to survey the
Cahokia “Woodhenge” near East St. Louis in November and December 1979, as well as in July
and October of 1980.
Figure 24: Carl Wenning, Weldon Schuette, Gary Skinner, and Calvin Abby at Cahokia
Moraine View Park programs and field trips continued throughout 1980. In July of that year,
six club members, friends, and family members would take the longest group trip ever. Eugene
Sutton, Gary Skinner, Bob and Sophie Finnigan, Bruce Jiles, and Carl Wenning traveled to the
Perkins Observatory52 near Delaware, Ohio, to observe with the 32-inch reflecting telescope
located there. In addition, members visited the Ohio State University Astronomy Department and
the OSU Radio Survey Telescope (the “Big Ear”) located immediately to the east of Perkins
Observatory. Club members also took the time out to visit Serpent Mound, Seip Mound, and the
Mound City Necropolis in southern Ohio.
So much of what happened within the TCAA over the years can be characterized by what
went on at the meetings and in its observing programs at this time. Members met regularly at
Mark Evans Observatory upon the invitation of Dr. Ray Wilson, and at the ISU Planetarium with
the assistance of Carl Wenning. Diverse topic matter was covered in talks presented by club
member and guest lecturers. Observations53 were made of comets, meteors, planets, deep space
objects, satellites, and atmospheric, lunar, and solar phenomena. Field trips were taken to the
Peoria Astronomical Society observatory at Jubilee State Park, to Adler Planetarium in Chicago,
and to Yerkes Observatory at Williams Bay, Wisconsin.
During these years public service had been at the forefront of all its activities. Astronomy
Day displays number two, three, and four were held in April 1979 at Eastland Shopping Center,
and in May 1981 and July 1983 at the new College Hills Shopping Center. About 100 persons
attended a public lunar eclipse observing session at Normal’s Maxwell Park on the night of July
5-6, 1982, over a span of about two hours. This particular eclipse netted a new member by the
name of Sharon MacDonald. Little did Sharon realize at the time that less than two years later she
would become the president of the TCAA and be videotaped by TV-10 describing a partial solar
eclipse that occurred on May 30, 1984.
Television and radio appearances by club members became more common over the years as
the club’s reputation spread far and wide. The TCAA and its activities were subjects of an hourlong
radio interview conducted with Gary Skinner and Carl Wenning over WRBA radio on May
23, 1983. During that month Gary was interviewed by two television stations: WBLN and TV-10.
The subject of the interviews was a naked-eye comet first discovered by the IRAS satellite.
Comet IRAS-Aracki-Alcock became an easily noticeable object passing within 3 million miles of
Earth. It was a large, diffuse, naked-eye object as it passed through the stars of the Big Dipper.
The comet was an obvious media event and the TCAA held observing sessions for the general
public at Comlara Park.
The membership of the TCAA was disappointed by the loss of Bob Finnigan who departed
the club in 1982.54 When Bob departed the club, observing from Downs dropped off even though
club members were permitted to observe there using the telescope Bob left in position until 1983.
Beginning in 1983, the membership attempted to recover from the loss by making an
ambitious proposal to the McLean County Parks and Recreation Advisory Board for a public
observatory in a county park. On April 14, Gary Skinner delivered a formal proposal to the Board
for a Comlara Park observatory after consulting with park personnel. The Board and park director
reacted very favorably to the proposal written by Carl Wenning. It was decided that the TCAA
would begin regularly scheduled interpretive programs during the summer of 1983 to determine
the suitability of the site, and to see if a good working relationship could be established between
the TCAAers and the park officials.
Figure 25: Carl Wenning related 'authentic' Indian sky lore at Comlara Park in 1983
With the assistance of Comlara Park naturalist Theresa English, the club sponsored 13
weekly programs that summer. These programs dealt with Indian Sky Lore, deep sky observing,
planets and the moon. The programs were well received by the public and were attended by
roughly 500 park visitors over the summer. Additional summertime programs were presented
during 1984 with similar results.
During the Astronomy Day program of 1983 the club followed the lead of two new
TCAAers, James and Susan Baker, to carry out a formal raffle. Club member donated some $800
worth of prizes for the event. By the time the raffle was over, the club netted $1,230 for the
proposed observatory. In June of 1984 the TCAA became involved in “Comlara Fest” selling soft
drinks, ice cream, and peanuts, netting another $50 for the project. The next year the club tried
selling Swedish pretzels with similar results.
Another event that started around this time was Astronomy Bowl. In an effort to spice up
meetings, the membership held astronomy trivia competitions with two teams facing off. The
events were quite popular and a lot of fun. The event would eventually make a regular appearance
in the club’s Astronomy Rendezvous and Conference in the latter part of the 1980s.
Figure 26: Eugene Sutton, Scott Turner, and Carl Wenning at Comlara Fest
The club membership, never satisfied to be involved in only one project, worked on other
important interpretive programs in addition to those mentioned already. During the summer of
1983, Jeff Rhodes and James Baker conducted two programs in Bloomington’s Miller Park. Jeff
concentrated on lunar observing, and Jim orchestrated a public education course. Jeff sponsored
two additional observing programs in the summer of 1984 as well. During February and
November of 1984 Sharon MacDonald taught two adult education courses for the TCAA through
the Bloomington High School Adult Education program. Each course was a series of three
classes, one each dedicated to constellations, planets, and telescopes. At this same time Carl
Wenning discovered that he enjoyed writing after composing an introduction for the book
Mythology for Young People: A Reference Guide.55 In his introduction Carl explained what he
had learned about celestial mythology from working for years in a planetarium.
Five club members gave presentations at this time to planetarium visitors after regular public
programs on behalf of the TCAA. The individuals,56 Carolyn Wenning, Weldon Schuette, Mark
Castleman, and James Baker, representing the club, gave short sky lectures, described the club,
and invited interested individuals to join it.
During the Annual Meeting of February 1984 the TCAA conferred upon Weldon Schuette
Lifelong Honorary Membership. This was only the third such membership to be conferred by the
club. Cited among his numerous accomplishments was work with amateur astronomers of the
TCAA, his writing and publication of The OBSERVER since 1975, his numerous lectures,
writings, projects, and drawings for the club observatories, and his many observing
accomplishments. He, like John and Bertha Kieviet before him, received a plaque that he
mounted in a place of honor in his home.
Figure 27: Gary Skinner (r) presents Weldon Schuette with Lifelong Honorary Membership
Under the dynamic leadership of Sharon MacDonald, James Baker, Weldon Schuette, and
Carl Wenning, the TCAA was formally incorporated in June 1984 and received official nonprofit/
tax-exempt status from the state and federal governments in the autumn of 1984. Bylaws
were carefully rewritten to suit the new status conferred upon the club by both state and federal
law. The process of obtaining non-profit status was lengthy.
The effect of incorporation on the membership was significant. With incorporation, the nature
of the club moved from “direct democracy” to “representative democracy” with a Board of
Directors now in charge of making decisions for the club.57 This change in governance irked a
number of club members even though the Board was open to hearing recommendations from the
membership before making any significant decisions. Each member had “a voice but not a vote.”
The Board always worked to develop a consensus of the membership before making any
decisions that might prove to be controversial. Nonetheless, and in spite of the fact that the Board
explained repeatedly that incorporation under the laws of Illinois required this form of
government, this change left several leading club members disaffected and they dropped out of
the club shortly thereafter.
On Monday evening, February 4, 1985, six club members convened in the Fairview Park
cabana to celebrate 25 years of club existence. These members, Bertha Kieviet, Weldon Schuette,
Michael McCall, Sharon MacDonald, and Carolyn and Carl Wenning, started the commemorative
meeting with a reading of the minutes of the organizational meeting held at that spot 25 years
earlier. A silver anniversary history of the club documenting the first quarter century was read
aloud for the first time. Each of the several members took turns delivering this history. The
members then shared an anniversary cake prepared to celebrate the event and reminisced about
Figure 28: Members celebrate club’s 25th anniversary at the cabana on February 4, 1985
A festive gala celebrating the first quarter century of the Twin City Amateur Astronomers
was held on Saturday evening, February 16, 1985, at Ewing Manor in Bloomington. Forty-five
persons attended the event, and some had traveled from quite a distance to be present for the
occasion. During this celebration Bertha Kieviet was honored with the presentation of a specially
engraved pewter and crystal candy dish. The base read, “T.C.A.A., 25 Years, 1960-1985.”
The evening’s events included an informal reception over punch and finger food from 6:00 to
7:00 p.m., a banquet dinner at 7:00 p.m., and assorted activities afterwards. The activities
included the showing of a special tape/slide program prepared by Carl Wenning entitled
“Twenty-five Years in Space.” The program was used to exhibit things that occurred in space
exploration from the time the Kieviets moved into town to the present. Slides taken of club
members during past TCAA functions were also shown. There were numerous chances for
everyone to reminisce throughout the evening. Door prizes were awarded at the evening’s end,
including a piece of Skylab material that was donated by a former member then working for
NASA, Sue Remsburg-Bassett58, a painting of the Horsehead Nebula created and donated by
Cindy Baker59, and a sun catcher in the shape of a star donated by Bertha Kieviet. The lucky
winner of the Skylab fragment was Marianne Skinner. Mark Warren won the painting. Gary
Skinner won the sun catcher.
Figure 29: Club celebrates silver anniversary at Ewing Manor
Figure 30: Bertha Kieviet receives club candy dish from Carl Wenning at Ewing Manor
Years of Reflection, 1985-1989
48 Despite this fact, many members of the general public seemed disinterested in viewing the six lunar samples – even
when encouraged to do so. At least one disinterested visitor who took the time to view the moon rocks noted with a
sense of disappointment, “These look like rocks from my driveway.”
49 Gary had earned a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
50 It was unfortunate that Mr. Kieviet’s last years in the club were marred by controversy. Change was occurring within
the club and he resisted it, sometimes vociferously. For instance, Carl Wenning recalls that his first attendance at a
club meeting in September 1978 included a heated debate about whether to continue including “vital statistics” in
meeting agendas. Still, John persisted in attending club meetings to the very end of his life.
51 To see a list of Founders Award recipients, see Appendix 7.
52 Carl had worked at Perkins Observatory while an undergraduate astronomy major at Ohio State University.
53 Informal observing programs at the Finnigan residence in Downs were often a mix of astronomy and anthropology,
and many hours were spent both at the eyepiece and sitting around the kitchen table with Carl, Mike, Gary, and
sometimes Gene Sutton sampling Bob’s wine collection and talking about Mesoamerican anthropology.
54 Bob phoned Historian Carl Wenning “out of the blue” on Monday, August 2, 2010. The duo met for breakfast the
next morning to talk about the club’s history and to examine Bob’s new Celestron 11-inch SCT telescope on a
CGEM mount. At the time of this writing (August 3, 2010) Bob is 68 years of age and living in Normal.
55 Rita Kohn, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Vol. 605, 1985, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.
56 This included Mike Poss, the planetarium’s first informal “employee” who was an ISU student, but not a TCAAer.
57 See Appendix 5 for a listing of Board members by year.
58 High school student Sue Remsburg was a founding member of the TCAA. Active in the TCAA until she started
work as a college student at Illinois State University, she left town in 1967 after earning a BS degree in Biology.
Several years later, after she married and moved to Maryland with her husband who was in the military, she earned
an MS in computer science from Johns Hopkins University. Shortly thereafter she was hired to work as a computer
programmer for NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Her work there continued from 1984 through 1990. While
working at Goddard SFC, she was president of the Center’s astronomy club. At this writing (April 20, 2010) she is
retired but remains actively involved in two astronomy clubs – the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt (MD) and the
National Capitol Astronomers. During her time in the TCAA, Sue was a good friend of Karen Mischler who
eventually earned a Ph.D. and moved to Moscow, Idaho, where she lives to this day.
59 Jim Baker’s sister; not a TCAA member.