Dr. Fred C. Hess


by Joe Rao

Well known astronomer and popular lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, Dr Fred C. Hess, passed away last Thursday morning after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 87-years old.

Among those of us who promote the science of astronomy in the Tri-State Metropolitan area, Dr. Hess had a status worthy of Joe DiMaggio. Let me explain with this analogy: It was back in 1999 that I was delivering a slide presentation on the Leonid meteors at the Andrus Planetarium in Yonkers. Somewhere in the middle of my talk, I mentioned that when I was 10-years old I attended a sky show at Hayden, and the lecturer behind the console provided a dialogue that literally lifted me right up out of my seat.

As I said those words, I brought up a slide of Dr. Hess and before I could say anything else, the entire audience applauded spontaneously.

They obviously were among his disciples.

The next day I called Fred and told him that if Joe DiMaggio was baseball’s greatest living ballplayer, then certainly – so far as the general public was concerned – he was the greatest living planetarium astronomer!

Indeed, to some, Dr. Fred Hess was the “Evangelist of Astronomy.” To others, he was the Dean of New York stargazers. His “official” title at Hayden was Instructor of Astronomy and Navigation, although he was well-versed in all aspects of science. He was a long-time professor of physical science at SUNY Maritime College at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx, and even authored a very popular book, “Chemistry Made Simple” back in 1955. For four years, during the late ’60s and early ’70s he also served as the Science Editor and on-camera weathercaster for WPIX/Channel 11.

And as a testimony to his abilities as a lecturer, in 1975 he was the recipient of the prestigious SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Truth be told, nobody ever fell asleep at a Fred Hess lecture. Actually, some of Fred’s presentations were more along the lines of a sermon as opposed to a formal lecture. He was without a question of doubt, one of the most dynamic and powerful speakers you would ever hear.

Many of his colleagues at Hayden recognized this as well.

In 1984, Long Island’s Custer Institute arranged for Fred and his long time friend and colleague, Dr. Ken Franklin (who passed away in June), to have asteroids named for them (respectively, 2844 Hess and 2845 Franklinken). At the ceremony, Dr. Franklin remarked that at many speaking engagements he had always had the unenviable task of having to follow Dr. Hess. “But,” he added, “should my asteroid have a smaller orbital eccentricity than his, then at long last I will finally catch him!”

Yet, it wasn’t only Fred’s resonant voice that made him a popular raconteur. I once asked him if he would reveal his secret on how he was always able to hold an audience’s attention and he answered with four words:

“Just tell a story.”

And under the stars, Fred was a masterful storyteller!

At Christmastime, for instance, he would describe Orion not as a mighty hunter, but as a “. . . large package in the sky, tied with a pretty bow across the middle.”

Or, he might tell the story about the night assistant at Sicily’s Palermo Observatory, who quietly entered two strange star names into the observatory’s star catalogue in 1814; it wasn’t until many years later that it was realized that in actuality, those two odd names were the first and last names of that same night assistant – spelled backwards! So Fred chose two adjacent stars, designating one “Derf” – Fred spelled backwards – while he named the other for his good friend, astrophotographer, Robert Little: “Bob” – that’s Bob spelled backwards.

Then there was the one about the constellation Lyra, the Lyre, with Fred explaining that a Lyre was a smaller version of a harp; musical instruments that hundreds of years ago were strummed by young men who would court dewy-eyed young ladies under the cover of darkness. Fred would then say that, believe it or not, this custom was still being practiced today. Using a homonym for his final word, he always got a huge pop from his audience by stating that: “I’m sure that even as I speak to all of you tonight, that at this very moment, there, are countless young ladies out there, listening to liars.”

Another amazing ability that Fred had, was to be able to take a subject and make it understandable for all ages.

Once, back in the late 1970s, I was in attendance at a lecture that Fred gave at the famous Mohonk Mountain House. His topic was the eclipse saros cycle. About ten minutes into his slide talk, who walked into the room and sat down to listen, but the famous comedian and actor, Jerry Stiller. As Fred continued to expound on the mechanics of eclipse prediction, I periodically looked back at Mr. Stiller who appeared absolutely spellbound by Fred’s presentation. When Fred had finished, Mr. Stiller came right up to him and said that if viewing an eclipse of the Sun was half as good as Fred’s slide talk, it probably would be a great thing to try and see. What a complement!

Indeed, talking about eclipses of the Sun was perhaps Fred’s forte. He traveled around the world, to 18 of them, accumulating more than half an hour, as he would put it, “basking in the shadow of the Moon.”

On another occasion, in 1983, Fred was conducting a class for a group of 6 to 8-year olds in one of the basement classrooms of the old Hayden facility. It was a Saturday morning affair, commemorating the annual family Astronomy Day. I was there to help conduct outdoor solar observing in front of the Planetarium, but I made it a point to run downstairs to say hello to Fred amidst a group of about 20 kids, running in twenty different directions while making a noise somewhat similar to a squeal amplified about 20 times. Through the din I asked Fred what he planned to talk about, thinking that it might be something elementary along the lines of “What is the Moon?” or “How to find the North Star.” “No,” he said, “I’m going to talk to them about the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram.” For a moment, I thought he was pulling my leg, but no, that’s absolutely was what his topic was going to be about. I left that room quickly, thinking to myself that Fred had finally bitten off more than he could chew and that he would soon be completely overwhelmed in that room of urchins.

About a half hour later, I decided to run back downstairs and see how Fred was making out. I was certain he was going to need someone to help bail him out and I would be the one to come to his rescue. Except . . .

When I got back to the classroom, every child was sitting down in rapt attention as Fred was bringing the class to a close. He was asking them what color a cool star would be and every kid enthusiastically shouted back: RED! He then asked what color a hot star would be and 20 voices yelled back: BLUE! He had those kids eating out of his hand and just before he dismissed the group, every kid in that room gave him a hardy round of applause.

Twenty more disciples.

It was at that moment I shook my head and swore that I would never, ever doubt Fred again; as someone recently stated: “He was one who could converse with a child in one breath and Einstein in the next.”

This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of this wonderful man’s passing: That so many young people, astronomy neophytes and budding young amateur astronomers will never have the opportunity to hear Fred’s booming voice. Fortunately, over the years I accumulated a small collection of audio tapes made from lectures, planetarium shows, as well as interviews that I conducted with Fred for radio broadcasts.

One such tape that I just finished listening to was a recording of a half-hour program that aired on WPAT radio back in 1985, about Halley’s Comet. During that interview, the moderator asked Fred about how to correctly pronounce the comet’s name: Is it Hail-lee or Hal-lee? Fred pointed out that the latter is the proper pronunciation, adding that “Hail-lee is probably derived from a certain musical group and a wonderful song-and-dance man (Jack Hailey) who played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.”

And amazingly, as I listened to Fred utter those words from over two-decades ago, I immediately thought of that part of the movie where the Tin Man receives that ridiculous, albeit beautiful, heart-shaped clock. Like me, you’ve probably seen it dozens of times in your life. But in thinking about it more, I also realized that what the Wizard said to the Tin Man, probably best sums up the life of Fred Hess:

“And remember, my sentimental friend, that a heart is measured not by how much you love,
but by how much you are loved by others.”

So true! He gave so much of himself and enjoyed sharing his knowledge of astronomy with people of all ages. He will be sorely missed.