East Lyme stargazers' eyes light up with purchase of new projector
East Lyme — A grassroots effort aimed at the stars resulted in the delivery this week of a $38,000 projector, the centerpiece of a yearslong initiative to revive the high school planetarium.
STARS to STEM director and President Diane Swan was in tears Thursday afternoon after pulling up at the high school with the Digistar Lite projector in her trunk to greet some of the people who have supported her over the past four years.
The nonprofit organization raised $59,848 over the past two years to help restore the planetarium, which was stripped of its projector and theater-style seating in 2013.
"We're going to make sure that the stars shine again," she said at the informal unboxing ceremony for the 136-pound package. Roughly 15 people gathered outside the high school to open it, pull out the bubble wrap and packing foam, roll out the case and remove the sturdy but compact projector that was a far cry from the hulking metal equipment shining on a 25-foot dome in a back corner of the high school for 40 years.
Back in 1969, when astronaut Neil Armstrong took his first "small step" on the surface of the moon and the country was taken over by celestial fervor, those in East Lyme decided they'd rather have a planetarium than a pool at their new high school. Science teacher Donald Bloom turned it into a reality.
Bloom, who died in 2011, was represented Thursday by stepson Jim Miller.
"He's a very happy man today," Miller said of the man in the stars.
Miller recalled being taken with the planetarium as a young student, before he got to the high school and before his mother fell in love with Bloom.
"Don had been using the planetarium to teach adult education and outreach classes," he said. "I remember I was so excited personally by the thing that, as a seventh grader, I talked my way into the adult ed course. I couldn't get enough of it."
Swan was in first grade at Niantic Center School the first time she went on the field trip to the high school planetarium that helped set a career trajectory focused on science and teaching.
She described the old projector as an intimidating "metal monster" that loomed at first in total darkness.
"Then the projector illuminated and Mr. Bloom and his magical pointer transported you to the heavens," she said.
Science teacher Robert Meyer took over upon Bloom's retirement in the early 1980s. Swan credited Meyer with continuing to foster her fascination with the Earth, planets, constellations and Greek mythology. But more than that, she remembered the way he recognized the signs of a learning disability and began administering all her tests out loud — before she was officially diagnosed with dyslexia in college.
"He never gave up on me," she said.
Now, Swan is a teacher and science coordinator at the elementary school she once attended. She began her four-year campaign to bring back the planetarium when she found out the school district was planning to turn the space into a special education classroom. She successfully rallied the East Lyme Board of Education to keep the dome intact and put off any permanent changes until she could raise enough funds to bring it back as a planetarium.
Swan said the check for the projector went in the mail on Aug. 18, Meyer's birthday. He died 11 days later.
His widow, Dixie Meyer, was there on Thursday to represent the man she said had been keeping tabs on Swan's efforts and collecting news articles since the fundraising efforts began. She said he had a thank you note from Swan prominently displayed at their home in Oakdale as a hopeful sign that the planetarium would be "back on track again."
Swan said she's hopeful high school astronomy students will be able to get into the room before the end of the school year.
Ultimately, the plan is to deliver programming for all ages and interests, from serving as a space laboratory for kids in preschool through 12th grade, to hosting field trips for students in surrounding communities, to providing the opportunity for fee-based movie nights for local groups or meeting space for area businesses.
But first, Swan told The Day she needs Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton and the school board to solidify an arrangement that up until now has been just a year-to-year commitment to hold the room.
"We need to enter into a formal agreement so we can figure out logistics," she said.
She provided the school board with an update on the STARS to STEM budget and requested a long-term commitment from the school board on Nov. 8. The minutes said action would be taken at a future meeting.
Newton did not return a call for comment by press time.
Swan said once the agreement is finalized, she can move forward with the next phase of the plan. It includes flexible, theater-style seating and upgrades to make the space accessible to those with disabilities. The group also is looking at replacing the air handler with an upgraded version to circulate air more safely in the coronavirus pandemic era.
She said the group plans to request roughly $40,000 to $60,000 from the town's remaining $3.8 million pot of federal pandemic relief aid to cover the accessibility and air circulation components. A committee is being formed by the Board of Selectmen to help guide the allocation process.
The committee will submit grant applications and host fundraising events to cover the seating, according to Swan.
After starting the brief ceremony in tears over an accomplishment she described as "four years in the making," she ended it with a promise to departing supporters.
"We're going to keep going," she said. "We're not stopping. It's the beginning."
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