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Herrmann, Thompson honored for leading the campaign to create first planetarium at UT Arlington 35 years ago
     
The University of Texas at Arlington has one of the finest planetariums in the nation, a facility which in 2016 celebrated its 10th anniversary. It boasts the latest in digital technology and hosts thousands of schoolchildren and visitors for its public shows every year.

The Planetarium at UTA is a direct legacy of the work of Ulrich Herrmann and Cecil Thompson, two former physics professors who teamed to create the University’s first planetarium, in the Roundhouse building adjoining Preston Hall, back in 1981. The contributions of Herrmann, who died in January 2015, and Thompson were honored at a December 19 ceremony during which a plaque commemorating their efforts was unveiled in the lobby of the Chemistry & Physics Building, directly across from the entrance to the planetarium.

The plaque includes a sketch of the Roundhouse, and its inscription reads:
“In recognition of the contributions of Dr. Ulrich Herrmann, Professor Emeritus, and Dr. B. Cecil Thompson, Professor Emeritus, in establishing the first UT Arlington Planetarium in 1981”.

Thompson, his wife Jo, their two daughters and members of their family, as well as Herrmann’s widow, Marianne, and members of their family, were guests of honor. Over 100 friends, former colleagues and former students of Herrmann and Thompson — from all over the country — attended the event, which included a reception, a special Planetarium show, a presentation of replica plaques to Thompson and Marianne Herrmann, and the unveiling of the plaque. A birthday cake in honor of Thompson’s 81st birthday (which was the previous day) was presented to him and shared with guests.

“I was greatly honored and totally humbled by the whole thing, and to see all the people who came was just amazing,” Thompson said. “There were people from many different points in my life, and it means so much to have them come out to honor Ulrich and me. The whole experience was just fantastic. Ulrich and I were not only colleagues but close friends as well, and I only wish he could’ve been there to share in it.”

Family and friends of both professors raised the idea of creating an endowment in their name, to fund improvements to the planetarium and the astronomy program. When word spread that UTA was planning to honor the pair, unsolicited donations began coming in from former students and colleagues of Thompson and Herrmann to create an endowment in their names.

Sarah Cole, one of Thompson’s daughters, worked with College of Science staff and UTA administrators to secure the plaque in Herrmann and Thompson’s honor.

“I was a teenager in high school when they opened the original planetarium in the Roundhouse and at the time, I didn’t realize what a big deal it was for the University,” Cole said. “Seeing all the people who came to honor my dad and Ulrich really made me realize how much they meant to so many people. I’m so happy with how everything turned out.”

Herrmann and Thompson, who came to UTA in 1961 and 1965, respectively, were the driving forces in the creation of UTA’s astronomy program. In 1971 the College of Science began offering astronomy courses for non-science majors, and they quickly became some of the most popular classes on campus. At the time, there weren’t adequate lab facilities available to effectively teach large numbers of astronomy students, so in 1975 Herrmann and Thompson hatched the idea of converting the Roundhouse into a planetarium, which could be used to teach astronomy.

The Roundhouse was built in 1928 as part of the Science Building (now Preston Hall), when UTA was known as North Texas Agricultural College and was part of the Texas A&M University System. The circular structure was originally built for viewing and judging of livestock. Formal opening of the Science Building and the Roundhouse annex was held on October 29, 1928.

When Science Hall was built in 1949, the Science Building’s name was changed to Preston Hall. Over the next several decades, the Roundhouse building housed art classes, History Department offices, and an art printing lab.

It took six years from the time Herrmann and Thompson proposed turning the Roundhouse into a planetarium for the grant funding to be secured. In the spring of 1981, the Roundhouse Planetarium, featuring seating for 60 people and a Spitz 512 projector, opened for astronomy lab classes. The professors realized that the facility would be an ideal way to reach out to the general public in the promotion of science education, and the Roundhouse soon added public shows on weekends, with Herrmann and Thompson serving as presenters in alternating months. Herrmann retired in 1998 and Thompson followed in 2000, by which time the Department of Physics had a strong astronomy and growing space physics program.
 
At left, Cecil Thompson and Ulrich Herrmann are shown in a photo taken inside the Roundhouse Planetarium soon after it opened in 1981. At top right, the Roundhouse as it appears today. At bottom right, the commemorative plaque honoring Herrmann and Thompson which was unveiled inside the Chemistry & Physics Building on December 19.


In 2004, when state funding was approved for construction of the Chemistry & Physics Building, Herrmann and Thompson urged John Fry, then the chair of the Department of Physics, to lobby for a larger, digital planetarium to be included in the CPB. They believed that a new planetarium would draw large numbers of visitors as well as new students interested in astronomy.

The lobbying effort was successful and in March 2006, the Planetarium at UTA opened along with the Chemistry & Physics Building. Herrmann and Thompson and their families were among the founding donors and attended the opening ceremony, when the Planetarium at UTA was unveiled to faculty, alumni, students, dignitaries and community leaders.

From its debut, the new planetarium drew rave reviews and large crowds for its public shows and stargazing events. It continued and expanded the Roundhouse’s role of bringing people from Arlington and surrounding communities to campus and allowed them to connect with UTA in ways they otherwise might not have. The Roundhouse Planetarium is still used for astronomy labs as well as for smaller shows.

“Cecil and Ulrich were truly pioneers for the department and the university,” said Alex Weiss, professor and chair of the Department of Physics. “If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have either of the planetariums on campus, or the astronomy program in our department as we know it. Because of their vision, we have a thriving astronomy program which teaches hundreds of students a year, and two planetariums which serve as terrific learning labs as well as providing educational and entertaining shows for the public. All of that grew out of the seeds that they planted.”

To support the endowment in Dr. Herrmann and Dr. Thompson’s names, or for more information, please contact Christie Mosley-Eckler, College of Science director of development, at 817-272-1497 or cmeckler@uta.edu.

About the College of Science
The UTA College of Science is addressing the nation’s pressing need for a larger and better-prepared STEM work force. The College has 42 undergraduate and graduate degree offerings in six departments and is equipping future leaders in science through award-winning classroom teaching and lab training. The College’s internationally acclaimed faculty is leading the way in innovative research and is finding solutions to some of the world’s most challenging problems. Visit www.uta.edu/cos to learn more about how the College of Science is changing the world through education and research.

Posted January 26, 2017
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