Scobee’s ‘voice of the stars’ retires after nearly four decades

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Rick Varner, director of Scobee, and Bob Kelley, Scobee planetarium coordinator of 39 years, unveil a photograph taken by Kelley of the Alaskan aurora borealis at Kelley’s retirement ceremony Jan. 26 in the north lobby of Scobee. Kelley gave the photograph to the planetarium as a parting gift. Photo by Alison Graef

Longtime coordinator retires after a fulfilling career with planetarium.

By Nicole Bautista

sac-ranger@alamo.edu

Scobee Education Center bid farewell Jan. 31 to planetarium Director Bob Kelley, who spent the last 39 years overseeing planetarium operations while also coordinating and presenting close to 14,000 planetarium shows to nearly 1 million people.

Kelley was hired as assistant director in January 1978 after receiving a bachelor’s degree in astronomy and planetarium education from Pan American University.

By that time, Kelley was already familiar with what Scobee planetarium offered. As part of the John Jay High School Astronomy Club, Kelley became a frequent visitor to the planetarium.

“I first visited this planetarium as a high school student around 1970,” Kelley said. “I really fell in love with what the planetarium was all about on that very first visit.”

Even as a child Kelley had a special and deep interest in astronomy.

“As a kid, I was interested in watching the astronauts go to the moon, space exploration and what was going on in the night sky as far as astronomical discoveries,” he said.

He also spent plenty of time awaiting Sky and Telescope — a monthly astronomy magazine that would tell current events — or going to the book store to purchase the latest astronomy book, and occasionally watching a program on TV about astronomy or space missions.

“My mom and dad recognized that interest, so for my 15th birthday present they purchased my first telescope,” Kelley recollected during an interview Jan. 26 “My parents were very supportive in that hobby, which became a career.”

Since the start of his career in 1978, Kelley has spent many hours writing scripts, creating visuals, narrating and presenting memorable shows for different grade levels.

Kelley recalled a woman he encountered during a presentation. The woman said that while she was growing up, her mother would regularly bring her to the planetarium.

Rick Varner, director of Scobee, gives Bob Kelley, Scobee planitarium coordinator of 39 years, an opaque, sparkling marble identical to one representing the galaxy M33 in the Scobee star chart at Kelley’s retirement ceremony Jan. 26 in the north lobby of Scobee. M33 is the only galaxy represented by a marble in the star chart, because the marble’s hole was mistakenly drilled during the manufactuing of the chart. Varner gave the duplicate to Kelley saying the thousands of stars in the galaxy represent the thousands of lives Kelley has touched in his years of service at the planetarium. Photo by Alison Graef

“She said, ‘I do not remember too much of the shows, but for me — you were always the voice of the stars’,” Kelley said.

Kelley said that he cannot remember the woman’s name but he will never forget what she said.

A few notable titles that Kelley created from start-to-finish are: “Myths and Mysteries of the Moon,” “Cosmic Questions,” “Voyage to the Seventh Planet,” “Worlds of Fire and Ice,” “Return of the Ice Age” and “The Sky Tonight” (both live and taped).

“It has been an amazing career,” Kelley said.

In retirement, Kelley will continue to explore the universe and its many celestial bodies.

Kelley will be moving to Delta Junction, Alaska, soon after his last day at the planetarium.

“I am moving to Alaska to continue my photography of the northern lights,” Kelley said. “It is beautiful there. The sky is dark, it is super quiet, and there is auroral activity.”

Aside from photography, Kelley has many hobbies, such as aviation. He is a licensed private pilot, and he is also skillful in creating stained glass windows.

Upon entering Scobee, there are four circular, celestial-themed, stained glass windows that were created by Kelley.

“He will have a living legacy here at Scobee with those windows,“ said Jennifer Becerra, colleague and academic coordinator of the Challenger Learning Center.

Becerra said Kelley’s unique knowledge and ability to make people appreciate the night sky will be missed.

“We put some hashtags around the building that say ‘one more year’ but the campaign did not work,” Becerra said.

Kelley has handed his title to Michelle Risse, who has worked under Kelley since April 2015.

“You’re in good hands,” Kelley said.

Risse has a master’s degree in astronomy and has worked at five planetariums across the country.

Becerra said Kelley has left a “legacy and they are big shoes to fill, but I think she is going to do a good job continuing that mission that he worked on and the vision he has for the planetarium.”

There is a “beautiful” star mural inside of Scobee that serves as “a teaching instrument with the constellations and the zodiac, then the individual stars, which are made of marbles, represent people who have made this building possible,” Kelley said.

Scobee Education Center has honored Kelley and his late wife with a star on this mural.

The star is Delta in the constellation of Corona Borealis. Delta is the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet.

“The interesting connection — I am the fourth director at this planetarium, and I am moving to Delta Junction,” Kelley said.

In return, Kelley gifted Scobee a photograph he took of the Corona Borealis in which you can see the Delta star.

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