Tuesday, May 31 , 2016, 8:16 pm | Overcast 57º




With the ‘Stars Aligned,’ SBCC Astronomy Professor Fred Marschak to Retire

After nearly 50 years in teaching — 37 of them in Santa Barbara — he has left his mark on the college and the Museum of Natural History

By Gina Potthoff, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @ginapotthoff |

All the pieces fell into place, something that tends to happen whenever longtime Santa Barbara City College professor Fred Marschak makes a weighty life decision.

As the astronomy teacher so ironically — and cheesily — puts it, “The stars aligned.”

Marschak’s latest life-changing decision will be to leave SBCC and Santa Barbara after 37 years at the end of the school year in June, returning to live near friends in his rural hometown of Martinsburg, Penn.

The soon-to-be 69-year-old was back visiting last fall for a high school reunion when he stumbled upon the perfect place for he and his wife of nearly 48 years, Nancy, to retire — a recently built house in the Homewood retirement community.

Another of his epic decisions involved moving to Santa Barbara in the first place. 

By 1977, Marschak had visited Southern California and was determined to return to live and teach astronomy among the space experts and regional facilities.

“I decided I’d like to be where the action is,” Marschak said.

The ad he placed in a national astronomy magazine, asking subscribers for a job, just happened to appear in the same issue — on the same page — as a SBCC ad, searching for an astronomy instructor to start its first lab course.

Kind of how earth and space sciences coincidentally became a school subject soon after Marschak set his teenage heart on becoming a teacher.

Marschak was offered the SBCC job and began defining a joint-use agreement between the community college and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, which allowed students to use and maintain the museum’s planetarium.

In 20 years' time, he had worked so closely and enthusiastically with the museum, providing free publicity about events and more, that locals mistook him for a museum employee.

Marschak worked with lab students a few nights a week, teaching how to set up a telescope, how to identify constellations and taking them on fields trips to the Griffith Observatory and others.

More than 10 years of prior experience as a planetarium director at his hometown high school prepared the Penn State graduate for a long, storied career at SBCC, where he grew the astronomy program from dozens of students to hundreds.

Astronomy lectures ballooned to 800 students as the solar system and space shuttle discoveries continued, and slots typically filled one or two days after registration began.

“It’s a science people are interested in,” Marschak said, noting a particular interest among non-science majors. “They finally actually get to see how the Earth moves every couple months.”

Channeling his own childhood memories setting up a telescope at age 9, Marschak tried to make astronomy fun.

Seen in many a lecture: “Warning: could be hazardous to sense of self-importance.”

Marschak has made such a mark on the community that SBCC, along with the museum and the Dorothy Largay and Wayne Rosing Foundation, will host a free lecture Saturday to honor him.

The longtime educator said he plans to show a short video about his career and decision to leave, a subject that conjures sadness despite his excitement.

“It’s been fun,” Marschak said, expressing gratitude and love for the college and community. “It’s been a grand adventure. But it was time.”

Saturday’s free public lecture — titled “48 Years of Astronomy & Space Exploration: In Honor of Fred Marschak’s Lifelong Commitment to Teaching” — will be held from 7:15 to 8:30 p.m. at the Natural History Museum’s Fleischmann Auditorium, 2559 Puesta del Sol.

Marschak’s friend and colleague, David Seidel, deputy education director at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will present an overview of the advances made in the astronomy field during Marschak’s teaching career.

The event is free, but reservations for ticket pickup are required and can be made by clicking here.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.




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