CANTON — Dave Richards remembers the exact moment he found astronomy.
He was 14 and “bored to death,” flipping through an issue of “Mechanix Illustrated” when he saw a guide to building your own telescope.
Richards convinced his dad to drive him around to find parts. He ordered a mirror kit through the mail, bought pipe fittings and spent time in the wood shop. The project took about a year.
He’s been studying the stars since. And he still has the telescope, though it’s now owned by a cousin in Pennsylvania.
Richards, 71, is retiring as director of the Hoover-Price Planetarium at the Wm. McKinley Presidential Library & Museum. He’s held the job for 20 years.
“It’s been so much fun, really,” he said. “And I felt it was time to give someone else a chance to have so much fun.”
Though astronomy has been a nearly lifelong love, it was a second career for Richards, who fell into the job almost by chance.
“It was a tremendous gift from the universe to be able to do this,” he said. “I couldn’t have been luckier.”
Richards spent the first 30 years his career as a Summit County social worker. He also taught at the University of Akron, his alma mater.
He retired at 50 and, once again looking for something to do, visited the McKinley Museum.
He was enthralled by the Buelle Planetarium at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, so he checked out the Hoover-Price Planetarium closer to home. He reached out to then-director Joyce Yut and asked if there was a need for a presenter.
Richards was initially tutored by the retiring planetarium director. About eight months later, he was asked to take the reins.
“It took me a micro-second to say yes,” Richards said. “It’s a hoot to be there.”
Going from social worker to astronomer wasn’t a difficult transition.
“It’s actually easier to explain the universe than social welfare,” he said. “Having to learn how to explain something so horrendously complex to the public, something that’s hard to grasp, gave me a good background to explain what’s going on out there in the universe. It was good preparation.”
Being an amateur has its advantage.
An astrophysicist can tell you all about quantum fluctuations, but they can’t tell you what phase the moon is in, he said. “I think some naiveté is useful. To be able to relate to humans and give them some sense of what science is about.”
The planetarium doesn’t use recorded programs. They make and write their own in-house presentations. A live presentation makes a difference to visitors, he said.
“We’re not interested in whiz-bang. Someone else can do that,” he said.
Richards will pass the torch to Suzie Dills, who will take over as director in September.
“We are thrilled that Suzie will be heading up the Hoover-Price Planetarium, especially given the breadth of her experience in astronomy education and her involvement in the Northeast Ohio community,” Executive Director Kim Kenney said in a news release. “Suzie will be taking over at the same time as the recent upgrade of our instruments, which is very exciting.”
Dills has been with the museum since 2014 and was the former executive director of the International Women’s Air & Space Museum in Cleveland. She has developed STEM programs for the Girl Scouts of Northeast Ohio, worked to secure funds for observatories and delivered astronomy and space programs at the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center’s Walter R. Schuele Planetarium. She’s the treasurer of the Cleveland Astronomical Society, and a member of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association, Summit County Astronomy Club and the Cleveland Regional Association for Planetariums.
“I am honored and privileged to be the next director of this wonderful planetarium,” Dills said in a statement. “I look forward to building on the legacy of the Hoover-Price Planetarium to further inspire and educate people of all ages.”
Richards praised Dills as an engaged member of the community and a “beautiful presenter. She knows a lot about a lot.”
He’s happy to leave the planetarium in capable hands and with a few new upgrades.
After searching for years, the planetarium finally found new bulbs that will “give us a much better sky than ever before,” Richards said.
“I’m thrilled to be able to leave with this thing that’s really ship shape. In perfect shape,” he said. “To leave with the facility in great hands with Susie, it’s splendid. I’m happy to be able to relax for awhile.”
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On Twitter: @jholbrookREP