Monday, February 22, 2010

A Plea to Save Sperry Observatory

What I write below concerns the astronomy club to which I belong, Amateur Astronomers, Inc., and its home of over 40 years, Sperry Observatory. However, I emphasize that I am not writing this on behalf of the organization or in any official capacity, but as a member who has benefitted from this group and its home and is seriously concerned about its future.

Two-and-a-half years ago, I had the good fortune to find and join a local astronomy club here in central New Jersey, Amateur Astronomers, Incorporated (AAI) whose home is Sperry Observatory, at Union County College. AAI quickly became far more than a place to learn about astronomy. This group, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary in November 2009, welcomed me to a close-knit group that is like an extended family. All newcomers are welcomed, regardless of their familiarity with astronomy, and quickly integrated into this friendly community.

This welcome was particularly meaningful to me in September 2007, after having been heavily demonized in a nasty local political campaign in my hometown since 1969. Finding people who accepted not just newcomers, but me, with all my quirks, without judgment, people who look toward everyone's strengths rather than jump on their weaknesses, was like winning the lottery. It literally made my year.

For over 40 years, AAI has made its home at Sperry Observatory, whose construction was funded by a $150,000 endowment in honor of William Miller Sperry, a local philanthropist and amateur astronomer. The observatory houses two of the largest telescopes used by amateur astronomers on the east coast--a 24-inch f/11 Cassegrain reflector, and a 10-inch f/15 refractor, the latter a gift built by AAI members and donated to Union County College.

In mid-December 2009, the last month of the International Year of Astronomy, AAI was sent a letter by the then-president of Union County College announcing the school planned to terminate its 40+ year agreement with AAI and evicting AAI from Sperry Observatory as of July 21, 2010.

It is understandable that in the midst of "The Great Recession," county colleges are short on funds and narrowly focusing on the "bottom line." However, in doing so regarding Sperry, Union County College is discounting the value of just how much AAI contributes to the school and community. Astronomy classes are held in the observatory building, and students in these classes regularly complete extra credit projects by attending AAI's weekly open public nights. These open public nights are free to all, members and non-members alike. Weather permitting, they provide an opportunity for visitors ranging from children to senior citizens to view planets, stars, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, etc., often for the first time. A special event in 1986 to view Halley's Comet attracted thousands.

Countless children have had the chance to learn about various aspects of astronomy and observe celestial objects personally at Sperry. These include Girl and Boy Scouts, classes from local schools, and members of various other youth groups. Once a month, a professional astronomer is hosted at the college, each time speaking on a different cutting-edge astronomy-related subject. These lectures have filled the entire college auditorium on many occasions. How could anyone put a price on these opportunities? The town of Cranford, where Sperry is located, recognized the priceless contributions of AAI when its mayor and council awarded the group a commendation in 2007.

If the college needs more space, Sperry Observatory, a small building, will not provide much in that area. No new building can be constructed on the site, as it is wetlands (laws against building on wetlands were not yet in effect when the observatory was built during the 1960s). The sad reality is that this group that has done so much for the community is being targeted largely for internal political reasons in a conflict that can have no winners.

Tomorrow evening, two AAI representatives will be meeting with the college's Board of Trustees to try to convince them to rescind the eviction and renew the college's agreement with AAI. That is why I, as an individual, representing no one but myself, am asking friends, fellow lovers of astronomy, club members, non-members who have taken part in AAI programs, and anyone who recognizes the benefits of an astronomical observatory in an urban setting, to contact the public officials who can make a difference in this matter. Community colleges are publicly funded, and their Boards of Trustees are appointed by elected county Freeholders, so a strong message from the public could lead these officials to reconsider and save Sperry Observatory.

Please contact the following individuals and urge them to use their influence with Union County College's Board of Trustees in support of Sperry and a reinstating of the college's four decades-long agreement with AAI.

Dr. Jack Farrell, College President, UCC Cranford Campus, 1033 Springfield Avenue, Cranford, NJ, 07016, email address

Dr. Victor Richel, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, same address as above. Email him through Susan Matika at

Union County College Web Site

Members of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders:
Angel G. Estrada
Mohamed S. Jalloh
Bette Jane Kowalksi
Alexander Mirabella
Rick Proctor
Deborah P. Scanlon
Daniel P. Sullivan, Freeholder Director,
Rayland Van Blake
Nancy Ward

Dr. Ed Davis, Union County, NJ Superintendent of Schools
Dr. Gayle Carrick, Cranford, NJ Superintendent of Schools
Dr. Margaret Dolan, Westfield, NJ Superintendent of Schools

Thank you in advance to anyone who takes the time to lend AAI support. Our observatory is a second home to many, with some members having been around for decades. We hope it can remain our home and a welcoming place for people of all ages to learn astronomy for many years to come.

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