Astronomer about town a tour guide to the stars HAV-A-LOOK!

December 31, 1990|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

Baltimore's street-corner astronomer is not on a street corner this night. He's at the back entrance of the Rotunda, his telescope trained on the black sky, urging shoppers in a soft, engaging voice.

"Would you care to have a look at Saturn and its ring?" says the astronomer, Herman Heyn. "It's that little speck out there."

People line up to have a look.

"Almost a billion miles away," Heyn says. "As small as it looks, you can put 21 Earths across that ring."

Adults marvel, and children are thrilled.

"There's no charge to look," says the astronomer, in a voice like the night city sky; you barely notice it, but you know it's there. "But contributions are welcome."

Heyn has provided Baltimore its free, or at least cheap, peak at the stars since one November night in 1987 when he first set up his telescope in Fells Point and threw down an old hat. Appreciative people plunked down $10 the first night and $45.70 the next.

He's spent three or four nights nearly every week since in Fells Point, Charles Village or at the Rotunda shopping center, his telescope focused usually on Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn or the mountains of the moon.

"I'm constantly awed by the beauty of the night sky," he says. "I just love to share these things."

Heyn says people this year have dropped about $8,000 into his old straw hat. He's been out about 150 times since Jan. 1 -- slurpy, humid nights, as well as frigid, biting nights -- for an average of five hours a night. He also operates a T-shirt business.

"When people ask about my income," he says, "I tell them the telescope's one-third, the T-shirts are one-third, and the third-third is just not spending money."


He is 60, slim, bearded, and he remembers his first moment of star-struck awe.

"I can pin that down exactly," he says. "It started with Miss Wicker in the seventh grade at Garrison Junior High School.

"I can still see her: silver glasses, slightly curly hair, slightly buck teeth -- a really dynamic teacher. One day, Miss Wicker drew the Big Dipper on the blackboard, and I copied it down."

That night Herman looked outside.

"And there it was, just as she had drawn it," he says. "That was the hook for me."

About the same time, he had his first look through a telescope. His father owned Heyn's clothing store at 415 S. Broadway, next to Murphy's, until the 1950s; he occasionally took Herman along on buying trips to New York.

One night, they ran into a street-corner astronomer in Times Square, and Herman had a quick peak at the moon through the cold wintry sky. Then relatives gave him a star book on his 13th or 14th birthday. And his father bought him his first telescope a year or two later.

"I didn't get a car; I got a telescope," Heyn says today. "In high school, I preferred staying home on a Saturday night and reading astronomy books to going out."

But that interest waned. After graduating from City College, where he was a champion swimmer, he foundered for three years at the University of North Carolina, joined the Army and served a year and a half in Korea. He returned to Baltimore and worked several traditional jobs, but never fit into a traditional mold.

He eventually earned a college degree, and in the 1960s he was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Then, in 1966, he saw a short story in the paper about the Leonids meteor shower, which peaks every 33 years.

"I can remember back in the '40s, reading how great it was in 1933 and saying I hope I'm alive to see it when it happens again," Heyn says.

He no longer owned a telescope, but decided to try to take pictures.

"I never saw a single Leonid meteor," he says. "But I got a couple of streaks of stars on film. I decided to try to take more star pictures."

He drove to Norfolk in 1970 and to Canada in 1972 to take pictures of eclipses of the sun. In 1973, on an "eclipse cruise" to the Caribbean, he took a series of pictures of a solar eclipse that was published in books and magazines and reprinted on a National Geographic poster.

With Comet Kohoutek in 1974, he obtained another telescope. With Haley's Comet a decade later, he plunged into the Haley's Comet T-shirt business, as well as the Haley's Comet rubber-stamp business, not to mention the Haley's Comet Frisbee business.

He researched the path the pet rock took to stardom, then rented space at the same trade show in New York City that had launched the pet rock. The space cost $2,000. Heyn did about $200 in Haley's Comet business. He advertised in astronomy magazines and trade and souvenir journals. The advertising didn't even pay for itself.

The comet, Heyn allows, "wasn't much to look at." He did stay in the T-shirt business, and now has a wide range of customers, including opera companies in a dozen cities.


But astronomy is his passion. Last year, he wanted to set up his telescope at the Inner Harbor, but the city Department of Recreation and Parks, which controls the sidewalks of Harborplace, rejected his applications for a permit.

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