John Herrmann knows a night-sky observatory just off the Ocean City Boardwalk could be a big hit with visitors.
He's seen it happen. Just a few weeks ago, in fact.
In one night, more than 1,400 people stood in line for a chance to look through the 14-inch telescope that's the star and the heart of the observatory, which formally opened last year on the grounds of Ocean City High School. That record crowd came on New Year's Eve, or First Night, as Ocean City likes to call its annual celebration of the start of a new year.
Herrmann, who taught astronomy and physics at the high school for 28 years before he retired last spring, says the crowds started coming shortly after the sun went down, at 5 p.m. They were still there five hours later.
"We had lines going back to the cafeteria," he said, standing in the Ocean City Observatory and waving toward the school building, maybe 30 or 40 yards away. "We got about 15 (people) in at a time. But it actually got so crowded that I had to get that (smaller) blue scope and put it on a tripod and run two stations."
So Herrmann - often known as "Doc" around his old school, for a Ph.D. in his specialty subjects - is sure if the city (or another agency) opened the observatory as a nighttime attraction in its already popular summers, it would give Ocean City yet another lure for more visitors.
Oh sure, he knows a spot right off the beach and boards isn't an ideal place to see the heavens. The local lights are too bright and the air is too thick with salt and humidity for it to be the perfect spot to see the night sky in all its splendor.
Plus it would be hard to promise a regular schedule for this new attraction in America's Greatest Family Resort, because sky-watching is a very weather-dependent pastime. If it's rainy and foggy, even the best telescope can't see past the clouds and into the cosmos.
"Now, I do it by astronomical opportunity, and the weather," says Herrmann, who lives in Vineland and volunteers to run his old school's observatory, which he had a big hand in creating - in part because he created OCHS' astronomy courses as the then-chairman of the school's science department.
And Herrmann is hardly the only one who knows the high-school's observatory has a lot going for it. For one thing, it's just a few hundred steps off the Boardwalk, which means there's a built-in crowd almost every night of the summer, and beyond. For another, people in and around Ocean City came together to create a very impressive facility at the school.
"This is a university-level observatory," says Matt Oster, OCHS' science team leader, who admits he's no astronomer - "I'm a biologist and a marine biologist" - but who helped in the campaign to build what's reportedly one of just a few such observatories at a public high school anywhere in the country.
Oster says it took about seven years of work to plan, raise the money for and build the observatory, with "100-percent support from the superintendents, the (Board of Education), administration and local businesses."
He figures that paying full price, it would have cost at least $80,000 to build what they did, but "everything was grants and donations and labor donations."
Oster and Herrmann have a full-page list of people and institutions who contributed, but it starts with Russell K. Snow Builders, whose namesake was "like the general contractor," Oster explains. Snow and his workers actually built the structure, and put together the aluminum dome - which turns automatically, opens in several directions and "came in like a big puzzle," Oster says, in pieces that had to be put together.
Snow's wife, Mary Beth, also is vice president of the Ocean City Education Foundation, a nonprofit group that exists to support the city's schools - and was a major backer of the observatory. The OCEF's president is David Allegretto, and "between Dave Allegretto and Russell Snow, they really put (the project) together," Oster said, although he emphasizes many more people got involved, and stayed involved over a long-running process of night meetings and local permits and official approvals and money-raising and more details.
Plus the backers did some smart shopping to stretch their purchasing power even further.
"The telescope, we got on sale," Oster is happy to say, as he walks in and points out the instrument at the center of the observatory. "That's a $20,000 scope - but we got it for 10 grand."
Herrmann, who also teaches astronomy at Rowan University in Glassboro - which has its own celestial observatory - knows Ocean City got itself a great telescope with "beautiful optics," he says.
"This will bring you right down into the craters on the moon," he promises a rookie visitor to the observatory.
But his favorite feature in the facility is the controller "that will actually point the scope to ... 40,000 different objects in the nighttime sky, even if you can't locate it," he says, giving a quick lesson in using the system - that even a rookie could understand.
With the push of a few buttons on a gizmo not much more complicated-looking than an everyday telephone keypad, the telescope automatically starts orienting itself toward its programmed target.
"This is going to take us right to the planet Mars," Herrmann says.
The highlights for that endless First Night crowd included views of Venus and Jupiter, Herrmann remembers. And the word is clearly getting out about the observatory. Before those 1,400 people showed up to stand in line on a cold New Year's Eve, the record for the Ocean City Observatory had been about 235 people coming through in one night.
But he knows the real draw was the chance for people to look out into the night sky with professional-grade equipment. Instead of the 250,000 or so miles we actually see it from, "This will bring you about 300 miles above the surface of the moon," he brags, like a proud father.
And he is, in a way. Herrmann guesses he started talking about an observatory for the school in about 1990, when "it was looked at as a star-gazer's dream," he says.
But thanks to lots of community support and organizing and work, it's on solid ground now -and looking into the sky. Herrmann is just sure a lot more people can use it to see the sky, and Ocean City can use it to find more people to come to the town, or more activities to keep them happy and interested once they're in town.
So even if that spot near the Boardwalk and ocean really isn't ideal for an observatory, the location has something else big going for it.
"It is the ideal spot," Herrmann says, "for visitors."
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