Edward Herrick-Gleason is leaving his job as director of the Southworth Planetarium at the University of Southern Maine in Portland after 25 years. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

It was just a cheap poster of the solar system, hung on the wall of a basement laundromat and video arcade in Orono – a reputed hangout for pot smokers and a place that young Edward Herrick-Gleason had been warned about by the adults in his life.

But by age 13, Herrick-Gleason was already fascinated with things that seemed mysterious and remote. So he ventured down to the laundromat one day to check it out. The poster captured his attention like few other things had. It launched his lifelong passion for space and led to his job as manager of the University of Southern Maine’s Southworth Planetarium in Portland.

“I remember being so captivated by that poster. It just resonated with me on a very deep level,” said Herrick-Gleason, 54. “At the time, I was obsessed with the occult, with the supernatural and darkness, things that were remote and mysterious. And obviously, the solar system is pretty remote.”

Herrick-Gleason is leaving his longtime job this month, after 25 years, and will narrate his last show, a night-sky tour, on the planetarium dome Wednesday night. In a testament to his popularity with astronomy fans, the 62 seats for that free show are sold out.

He has tried to make the solar system seem a little less remote and mysterious during his time at the planetarium, narrating thousands of shows about the wonders and science of the universe. He’s written a blog on astronomy, spoken to local groups and become the go-to expert on astronomy for local media.

Whenever there’s an eclipse, super moon or other astronomical event, Herrick-Gleason is sought after by TV reporters, radio stations and newspapers to explain and demystify what’s about to happen. In the weeks leading up to the April 8 total solar eclipse, he was in especially high demand and seemed to defy the laws of time and space in his media appearances. Turn on the radio and you could hear him talking about the eclipse, flip to a local TV news show and there he was, telling people to be sure to wear the proper glasses. Open a newspaper (including this one), and he was explaining why totality was an experience not to be missed.

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Ron Thompson, of Yarmouth, was one of the first people to reserve a seat for Herrick-Gleason’s last astronomy show Wednesday. A longtime member of the Southern Maine Astronomers, Thompson has heard Herrick-Gleason give many talks and feels his enthusiasm for astronomy is unmatched.

“He’s so full of energy, it’s ridiculous. With his enthusiasm, you can’t help becoming more enthusiastic yourself,” said Thompson, 80. “He has done so much for our group over the years. That’s why I wanted to go (to his last planetarium show) and thank him.”

THE STORY OF THE SKIES

Herrick-Gleason’s enthusiasm, knowledge and storytelling skills have helped make him a “wonderful” ambassador for the planetarium and the university, said Thomas Bickford, director of STEM Outreach and Services at USM. Bickford estimates that hundreds of thousands of people, including lots of students, have listened to Herrick-Gleason’s presentations. He’s especially known for his night-sky tours on the planetarium dome, Bickford said.

Edward Herrick-Gleason teaches a class on the big bang theory at Southworth Planetarium on May 8. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“It’s these night-sky shows that mark Edward as the true professional in the field with a wealth of knowledge that is second to none,” said Bickford. “Not only will Edward walk you through what is going on in tonight’s sky, but will be able to answer, with interest and usually a flair for the fun side, whatever other questions might arise from the audience.”

Herrick-Gleason said it took him some years to become comfortable speaking in front of groups. He also didn’t realize, when he started at the planetarium, how much he’d enjoy talking to people one on one. Not just about astronomy, but about their lives. He remembers a talk he gave at a church once and the awe he felt from meeting a veteran who’d been in the Normandy invasion during World War II.

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He says he developed his knack for talking about the cosmos over the years with the help of some anonymity. He narrates planetarium shows from a somewhat hidden booth in the back of the darkened auditorium, surrounded by more control panels and audio hardware than you might find at some rock concerts. He finds that easier than speaking in front of a well-lit room of people.

The planetarium might host 25 to 30 shows and classes in a school vacation week – and around seven to 10 other weeks – though Herrick-Gleason does have part-time employees who lead shows, too.

Last Wednesday, Herrick-Gleason conducted one of his “Astronomy a la carte” classes in the planetarium. He had started the classes online during the pandemic – when the planetarium was forced to close – and now continues them in person. The session Wednesday was on the big bang theory, the creation of the universe.

He started the talk standing in front of his audience, pacing from side to side as he talked. He never uses notes anymore, though he says they’re fine for people starting out in the planetarium business. He often punctuates dramatic information with a long pause or a quick hand gesture.

“Imagine there is no time, no space, no dimension, no energy, no matter, no action, no dynamism. Can you do that?” Herrick-Gleason asks. “I can’t.”

On Thursday, sitting in the same auditorium but without an audience, he demonstrated how he sets up and narrates a show. First, he turned down the lights, then flipped some buttons and knobs on his control board to project the globular cluster Omega Centauri on the 30-foot-wide planetarium dome. The image is filled with brilliant specks of color – blue, green, red, yellow and white – like a high-powered Light Brite toy. Then, without looking at anything written down, he starts narrating.

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“This is a globular cluster containing more than a million stars. These globular clusters date back to the earliest days of the galaxy, some 12 billion years ago,” said Herrick-Gleason. “And they are like fireflies, and the halo of the galaxy. If you think of the galaxy as being this large disc, the halo is a spherical region centered on the nucleus. And these globular clusters just mill about it.”

DRAWN TO BASEMENTS

Though he’s been the facility’s manager for 25 years, he actually began at the planetarium as a student volunteer in 1992. After getting his bachelor’s degree in physics from USM in 1994, he started working there part-time and became manager in 1999. In talking about his journey in astronomy, Herrick-Gleason points out that he must be drawn to basements. The poster that sparked his interest was in one, and so is the Southworth Planetarium, in the USM Science Building on Falmouth Street.

Last week, Herrick-Gleason was training his replacement, John Haley, who has taught geology at the University of Maine at Farmington, as well as high school science.

Herrick-Gleason is moving partly because he feels like he’s been in one place long enough. In keeping with his passion for all things remote, he’s moving to St. John’s, in Newfoundland and Labrador, where his wife grew up.

He doesn’t have a job lined up but hopes to lead night-sky tours outside, once he gets a work permit. He says it’ll be a welcome change to just talk to a group about the stars and the sky without having to worry about technical problems, equipment breakdowns, scheduling, programming and all the other things that go into running a planetarium.

“One of the great ironies of my departure is that I’ll be able to do a lot more astronomy now,” he said.

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