A Fells Point staple, Herman Heyn takes pride in being ‘Baltimore’s Street-Corner Astronomer.’
Last month, Herman Heyn was among the throngs of people who traveled hundreds of miles to witness the extraordinary total solar eclipse, catching two minutes-plus of darkness from the vantage point of Perryville, Ill.
You may know Heyn, a Charles Village resident, as the self-proclaimed “Baltimore’s Street-Corner Astronomer.” On most clear nights, he’s hanging out around Fells Point with an 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector telescope and a sign that says, “HAV-A-LOOK!” He’s there so you can see the moon, Jupiter, Saturn or whatever else is remotely interesting in the evening sky. He’s even out there in the daytime occasionally, when sunspots are active.
This year’s eclipse wasn’t his first. Heyn, who turns 87 in December, says he’s witnessed a total of five eclipses. His first eclipse, a partial one, was in July 1945 at a Maine summer camp, he says. It wouldn’t be until March of 1970 that he saw his next eclipse in Norfolk, Va., and then two years later at Prince Edward Island, Canada, where he was dubbed “Dr. E. Clipse.” His next eclipse was at sea on the Cunard Adventurer, 900 miles east of Trinidad.
And, yes, Heyn is planning on seeing the April 8, 2024, eclipse.
Heyn says he goes to eclipse sightings for a number of reasons — “amazing beauty, a totally otherworldly, glowing, silvery orb in a dark sky. And there’s the human inclination for keeping score.”
The Baltimore-born Heyn’s love affair with astronomy began with Miss Wicker in her eighth-grade general science class at Garrison Junior High School (he still has his report card from that year).
“One day, she drew the Big Dipper on the board,” says Heyn, “and instructed us to find it that night. I did and was immediately hooked. As a teenager, I’d read a huge number of astronomy books and became pretty conversant with the subject. My supportive father bought me a 3-inch refractor.”
Heyn purchased his first “adult telescope” in 1978. “Rather than disciplined observing, my main activity with it was visiting schools, with a slideshow, too, and entertaining friends at cookouts,” he says. “In 1981, I acquired my 8-inch Meade SCT.”
A divorced father of three and grandfather of five, Heyn began his “Baltimore’s Street-Corner Astronomer career” in November of 1987.
“It was a gorgeous early evening sky, with both the moon and Jupiter front and center,” he recalls. “I had nothing special going on, so I decided to take my 8-inch to Fells Point to share the sky’s beauty with the public.”
Heyn doesn’t charge folks to look through his telescope or to receive a sticky note that reads, “I saw Saturn” or “I saw Jupiter.” But he does accept donations in the plastic cowboy hat that sits under his telescope.
On his first night, he says he earned $10, $40 the second, and on the third day he marched into City Hall to acquire a permit.
Heyn has a degree in elementary education from Coppin State Teachers College (now Coppin State University), although it didn’t take long before he realized he wasn’t cut out to be a full-time teacher. He served in the military and has worked as a lab tech and an office manager. He also designed and marketed T-shirts, with Halley’s Comet on the first shirt.
But Heyn says he thanks his lucky stars – pun intended — for the day he discovered “street telescoping, because it’s far and away what I do best in this world.”
Heyn says he knows at least a dozen people who have bought telescopes because of his street work, and one person who is planning to apply to be an astronaut because of him. One couple, visiting Fells Point a few years ago, returned the following year to tell him they’d started dating, became engaged and got married because of him.
One resident of Reading, Pa., told Heyn that he traveled to Niota, Tenn., to see this year’s eclipse because he’d once spotted Jupiter through Heyn’s telescope.
Among other accolades and honors, Heyn says he’s the only living human with a constellation named for him, and there’s at least one other obscure factoid to his credit.
“Thanks to needing to align my telescope on true north for it to work right,” he says, “I discovered that Baltimore’s north-south streets point 3.5 degrees west of true north. The paper I wrote on this was accepted by the American Geophysical Union, received a good write-up in The Sun, and was published in Backsights, the publication of the Surveyors Historical Society.”
Jim Johnson, president of the Columbia-based Howard Astronomical League, recently wrote to Heyn in an email, “You’re an astro-rock star, Herman. You have long been one of my inspirations with respect to not succumbing to age a single moment earlier than absolutely necessary. Keep knocking it out of the park. You can count me among your biggest fans!”
For information about Heyn, visit hermanheyn.com or call 410-889-0460.
Judy Colbert is the author of “100 Things to Do in Baltimore Before You Die” (Reedy Press).
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