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Reflecting on a cosmic career: An interview with David Leake

Parkland Planetarium Director and astronomy professor David Leake carved out the type of career that so many strive for — taking his passion and hobby and turning it into a livelihood. Over the course of 30 years, he shared the sky with the community, with school kids, and with his students at Parkland, including one that went on to publish this particular magazine:

“I decided to take an Astronomy course in my last semester at Parkland because I needed a science requirement and it felt like the sort of thing that would be interesting to me. Little did I know that my professor would turn it into perhaps my favorite class I ever took. From the beginning, his lectures were funny and accessible, and the technical and mathematical work required was explained in a way that we could all understand. It was through this class that I began to realize the value of how a teacher truly affects the subject. Instead of feeling intimidated, I felt empowered. I got an A, the first time I could say that about a science class, since grade school.” -Seth Fein

Leake is retiring at the end of the week — handing over the reins to associate professor of astronomy Erik Johnson — and is looking forward to rediscovering that passion and hobby again, apart from the job. And that passion is something that was sparked in childhood, 5th grade in fact. “My 5th grade teacher took an overhead transparency machine…remember those? He took a black sheet of construction paper, took a pencil and poked out the holes, put it on the transparency machine, and I saw my first constellation on the wall. I was hooked. I went to the library, and found out wow, there’s more. And then there’s all this other stuff: clusters and galaxies and things.”

Rather than choosing to major in astronomy as a student at the University of Illinois, he pursued physics, at the urging of a rather famous astronomer, astrophysicist, and author — Carl Sagan. According to Leake, he wrote Sagan a letter and Sagan wrote him back (a letter that is now framed in Leake’s basement). “There might be few people in the astronomy department that get upset at this…He basically told me that descriptive astronomy is fairly easy, that you really need to get your physics background. He said to take some astronomy classes, but that I should be a physics major. So that’s what I did.”

Though Leake spent most of his career at Parkland, he first applied his science knowledge to a rather unique job, making ingredients for lighting from chemical elements. Working alongside a friend, Scott Anderson, they provided elemental mixes for the first lights at Wrigley Field, for the space shuttle, and even for the Statue of Liberty. But it wasn’t astronomy. So, he started doing a little teaching on the side. Halley’s Comet appeared in the mid-80’s, and he began speaking to classes about the best ways to view it. Around the same time, Parkland began building a planetarium, and Leake applied for the director’s job, knowing he wouldn’t get it because of his lack of experience (he actually still has his rejection letter). But, the eventual director took notice of his teaching and brought him on part time in 1989. The rest, as they say, is history. Leake got that director’s job in 2000.

Leake fondly recalls the early days of putting on shows at the planetarium, before digital came along. “Back in the day we had 50-60 slide projectors in this room. We had to properly mask the slides and determine where they needed to go. Then another guy programmed it. We were putting in shows here at two o’clock in the morning. In fact truth be told, and I think it’s okay to say this now, we would work until 11 or 12, leave and hit last call at the Esquire, then come back and finish working. We had a blast.”

His favorite specific memory is a bit more recent. When the Curiosity Rover was landing on Mars, Staerkel Planetarium picked up the special feed from NASA. Leake decided to open the planetarium in the middle of the night to live stream the footage, and figured “the three insomniacs in town would show up.” So many people showed up that it was standing room only. “When the Rover landed, everybody stood up and clapped. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been involved in.”

Leake says he has mixed feelings about retiring. Though he’s ready to move on, he will miss the relationships…with students, with his colleagues, with the kids and teachers that come through the planetarium, relationships he calls “priceless.” He won’t be completely out of the game. Leake founded the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society over 30 years ago, and they are still going strong, hosting family skywatch events and open houses at their observatory in Tolono, and in the past year helped facilitate the process of Middle Fork River Forest Preserve becoming an offical Dark Sky Park. So he will still be “sharing the sky” with the community, while taking some time to remember why he became enamored with the night sky in the first place.

“One of the things that I’m planning on doing after retirement is recapturing that. It’s not that I really lost it, but things can become so mechanical. You do some of the same shows over and over again. I need to go out and rediscover why I got into this to begin with. So I’m really looking forward to that…It’s fun talking with other people, but sometimes I like to sit of the tailgate of my truck and just look…no telescope or anything.”

That rediscovering will begin soon, as he heads out to Colorado for the Rocky Mountain Star Stare, where “you get to see the sky from 7000 feet high in the Rockies.”

David Leake’s last planetarium shows will be this week, with the final public shows on June 21st.

Photo by Julie McClure

Staff writer

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