They’ve called him “Starman” and the “Guide to the Stars,” but Chris Clarke doesn’t mind.
As the planetarium specialist at San Bernardino Valley College, Chris is in his element — the cosmos — surrounded by all things celestial.
Chris has astronomy in his DNA.
“I’ve always been very passionate about studying the sky. I’ve found that most people — even if they don’t grasp astronomy — it will appeal to them. The heavens are a common denominator for humanity,” he once told me.
An amateur astronomer, he can explain how the ancients arbitrarily saw images in the constellations, often naming them after mythological beings.
Chris is retiring later this month after 25 years of reaching for the stars as head of the George F. Beattie Planetarium and the adjacent N.A. Richardson Observatory, inspiring young minds and sharing his passion for the universe.
However, the planetarium has been his “baby” for nearly 40 years.
“I tell students ‘you are a part of the universe and it is a part of you.”
Last month, at SBVC’s Awards Dinner, the college presented him the Outstanding Service Award.
• Photos: A lifetime of reaching for the stars
Because he prefers starlight to the spotlight, Chris was caught off guard, accepting the honor modestly, not remembering what he said.
In spite of his stellar profession, he manages to keep both feet on the ground.
He’s a down-to-earth guy, he’ll tell you.
An artist, too, Chris is also a historian and created a science museum on the ground floor of the adjacent N. A. Richardson Observatory, which housed a 16-inch Newtonian telescope under its dome and in 1930 was the largest telescope at any junior college in the nation.
Rebuilt in 1931 by H. Page Bailey, a local dentist and amateur astronomer, the telescope is still in use today.
The oldest building on the campus, the observatory is also home to a collection of apparatus and laboratory equipment assembled and researched by Chris from the school’s various science departments.
Chris, 58, who lives in Rialto, has been at the planetarium since 1978, when he walked in the door as a student and fell in love.
Although he began college as an art major, astronomy was his hobby as a teenager.
When he arrived at SBVC, he said, “Oh my gosh, I could make this hobby come to life.”
And he did.
He volunteered, stayed and learned as much about the planets and stars as he could.
After graduation, he did not want to leave so got his first paying job as an artist, painting the Pendulum Mural in the planetarium.
While earning bachelors and masters degrees, he became a teaching assistant, producing the planetarium shows even when working for General Dynamics.
The planets aligned for Chris when he was appointed planetarium specialist.
The building’s beautiful domed amphitheater features a star projector on a stage in the center of the circular room.
The dome, lined with thin aluminum sheeting, is 33 feet in diameter and suspended by chains.
Chris manages the control panel, organizing, coordinating and presenting all the public shows from his vantage point at the back of the theater.
Producer of the longest continuous planetarium program in the San Bernardino Valley, Chris’ shows have continued since the doors opened, delighting students on field trips as well as serious astronomy students and the general public.
Since 1992, Chris estimates he has presented 3,300 heavenly programs — and 3,800 since he arrived at the planetarium.
He must be doing something right — he has shared this celestial awe with 180,000 visitors.
“I try to give people a whole new perspective with the planetarium shows,” he said.
Although Chris makes his living using electronics, he’s not a fan of the cutting-edge, digital gizmos.
A Smart Phone? No thanks, he’ll tell you.
It’s a bit of an anachronism that he did purchase a flip phone a couple of years ago.
I had to ask Chris about the difference between the domed planetarium and domed observatory.
The difference is then and now.
The stars in the planetarium dome are simulated from real photographs as they move across the “sky.”
The stars and planets captured in the telescope are what we see now.
In the past, Chris would finish a Friday night show in the planetarium and invite the public to take a look at the moon.
Children would stand on a small platform, look through the lens and be amazed, he remembered.
Chris is concerned about the light pollution of the once-dark skies, however.
He said that George Beattie was concerned about the same thing back in the 1950s.
Over the years, all of Chris’ work has been a labor of love and it’s been fun.
He considers his ah-ha moment the ultimate pat on the back — when he could sense the energy of the audience and know they enjoyed the show.
Sometimes audience members — many of them college students — told Chris he made them think about something greater.
They were moved to silence.
“I came to realize what they meant, but I was just sharing,” he said.
Sharing and inspiring.
“This has been the love of my life,” Chris adds, “but you reach a point when you kind of want to back away.”
But don’t bet on him staying away — he’s already planning on “stopping by” and maybe “consulting.”
Michel Nolan appears in The Sun on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MichelNolan.