Dr. Nancy Currie-Gregg Observatory at Enid High School

HISTORY OF THE EHS OBSERVATORY

EHS Astronomy Teachers

Jim Smeltzer

Nolen Harsh

Dusty Hugaboom

Unless they turn their attention skyward, visitors to Enid who happen to drive by the city’s high school located at the corners of Wabash and Monroe will probably miss an important part of both local and state history. 

Today, as it has for too many recent years, the observatory atop Enid High School sits unassumingly, seemingly resigned to the fate that befalls all things that are forgotten. The promise—even glory—of its yesteryears ignored by all save for a determined teacher and the hundred or so students who still believe in and benefit each semester from the wonders contained within the steely dome.

The Enid High School observatory is the only one of its kind in Oklahoma. Jenks High School recently opened a planetarium, and certainly other schools claim telescopes of varying design and size as hands-on educational resources. But, Enid lays claim to being one of the few high schools in the country with a full-scale, fully-operational (at least for now) observational domes.

And the Soviets can be thanked for Enid’s good fortune.

 

When the U.S.S.R. launched its Sputnik 1 satellite in the autumn of 1957, the message was clear: the Russian educational system was superior to that of the United States. At least that’s what the U.S. Congress used as its justification for creating the National Defensive Education Act (NDEA), which was signed into law on September 2, 1958.

Four years later, a young science teacher at Enid High School took advantage of the Tittle III section of the act which provided government assistance for the purposes of strengthening science, math and foreign-language programs in American schools.

James Smeltzer was born and raised in Sapulpa, OK. He received his undergraduate degree from Oklahoma Baptist University, then obtained his teaching certification from the University of Oklahoma. He no doubt read of the launch of Sputnik while a student at OBU in Shawnee. His first full-time teaching job was in the science department at Enid High School.

At the time, astronomy was more a historical subject in the classroom than scientific. Kepler, Galileo and Newton were seminal figures, either for their work studying the planets and stars or predicting their motion. Smeltzer knew all that and tried to bring the subject to life in his classroom. If only he could open the night sky to his students.

 

Smeltzer invested a not-insignificant sum of his teacher’s pay to the purchase of a small telescope, but was disappointed in what he saw first hand. Then, through a college schoolmate who was teaching elsewhere, Smeltzer learned about the NDEA and took it upon himself to author the grant proposal.

The fear of what then Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson called the “prospect of living under a communist moon” mobilized the U.S. government and freed enormous sums of money to avoid getting lost in what soon would be called the “space race.” Smeltzer had to be both delighted and surprised to receive word the Enid Public Schools had been awarded a $16,000 grant...which today would be worth about $125,000.

On November 5, 1962, the Enid Board of Education unanimously approved the use of the Title III funds for the “construction of an astronomy observatory on top of Enid High School.”

One month later, bids for the “Astro-Dome” were presented to the board. Interestingly, those are the exact words from the minutes of that meeting: “Astro-Dome.” It wouldn’t be until more than two years later that the brand new Harris County Domed Stadium would become known as the Astrodome, the home field of the Houston Astros baseball club...who up until the opening of the Astrodome had been known as the Houston Colt .45s.

Smetlzer’s observatory was constructed in the summer of 1963 and opened to students that fall.

 

In the fall of 1965, the beginning of Smeltzer’s last year at Enid High School, additional Title III money was used for the purchase of a Tinsley Laboratories Model D 8-inch Cassegrain reflecting telescope, one of the premiere observational instruments of its time. The telescope was put into service in early 1966...and remains in place as the principle viewing apparatus in the EHS observatory today, more than 50 years later.

Smeltzer left Enid to attend graduate school at Oklahoma State University. He ultimately wound up a full professor at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, MO, and died in 2006, following his retirement from the school. 

Tinsley Labs is now a subsidiary of L-3 Technologies, which has the current aircraft service contract at Enid’s Vance Air Force Base.

Smeltzer’s replacement on the EHS faculty was Nolen Harsh, who was promoted from his position in the science department at Emerson Junior High School. Harsh launched the high school’s astrophysics and astronomy courses and taught those classes until his retirement in 1991. DeAnne Sackett taught astronomy at EHS in the ‘90s. Then, in 2000, a young teacher from Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, Dusty Hugaboom, took the reigns of the program. Since then, he has grown EHS Astronomy to historic proportions, and continues to teach the course at Enid High School, expanding awareness, horizons, and imagination.

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