Herman Heyn, known by some as Baltimore's "street corner astronomer," retires following over three decades of showing pedestrians celestial bodies through his telescope. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun video)
On a crisp Saturday night in Fells Point, Herman Heyn starts his beloved ritual. He tightens his telescope on its tripod and fiddles with each leg, seeking level ground on the brick sidewalk.
The 87-year-old in a blue beret and Nordic sweater pulls his advertising from a green milk crate. It’s a small cardboard sign that reads, “TONIGHT — THE MOON.”
And it bears the slogan he’ll repeat as tourists gawk and bargoers stumble past: “HAV-A-LOOK!”
This is night No. 2,858 for Heyn, known as Baltimore’s “Streetcorner Astronomer.” And he says it’s his last.
He’s part scientist, part street performer, having beamed glimpses of Saturn, Jupiter and elusive comets to Baltimore sidewalks for nearly 31 years.
Over that time, he’s gained five grandchildren and lost 5 inches of height, and neck pain now prevents him from lugging around his instrument alone. Tonight, he has the help of his 16-year-old neighbor, a tall, thin boy named Miles Barnes.
From the open door to the Admiral’s Cup, the wails of a band covering Pearl Jam spill out just before 7:30 as Heyn starts his night of work.
“Is there something special about the moon tonight?” one woman asks as she passes.
Heyn responds, “It’s always this beautiful.”
Would Baltimore have its own streetcorner astronomer without Miss Wicker? Heyn traces his passion for the stars to her Garrison Junior High School classroom, and an assignment to look for the Big Dipper.
He remembers finding it, standing on its handle in the twilight. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
A red leather-bound star atlas, copyright 1937, fed his curiosity as a teen. Once World War II ended and telescopes became commercially available again, his father bought him his first one, a Mogey with a 3-inch lens.
His astronomy career wasn’t meant to be, just yet — he sold the telescope to pay for a road trip out west with his buddies. That started what Heyn calls his 16-year hiatus from astronomy. He tried college for a year, served in the Korean War, got married, had three children.
But he started looking skyward again in the 1960s, photographing meteor showers and traveling to watch solar eclipses. He bought a new 3-inch telescope in 1978, and traded it up for an 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain three years later.
Bouncing light off a series of mirrors, it could spot objects near and far. With battery power, it rotated to follow them across the sky.
One cool November night in 1987, he decided to take it out for a spin.
“I was divorced. I didn’t have much social life,” he recalls. “I said, why not? I’ll take my telescope down to Fells Point.”
By 8 o’clock on Heyn’s last night, the clouds finally part, revealing a bright, nearly full moon. Casey Buto, 23, peers into that same Schmidt-Cassegrain, which Heyn affectionately calls the Fells Point Hubble.
“Damn, that’s incredible,” the new Upper Fells Point resident says as he studies the craters.
Like so many of Heyn’s customers over the years, Buto and his friend Taryn Ward, who's visiting from Rochester, N.Y., have never met anyone like the old man. Buto says he always thought about buying a telescope and learning astronomy, but never did, and now he’s in awe.
Jasmine Wilborne is the next to look, and she’s ecstatic to share the opportunity with Sharmaine Johnson, 16, recently matched with Wilborne in a big sister program. Wilborne once looked through a telescope she found at Goodwill, but is thrilled at how much better the view is from Heyn’s observatory.
“Marvel of space is something that should be passed down the generations because it’s absolutely beautiful, the universe we are in,” the 27-year-old Pen Lucy resident says. “I’m happy someone like him is keeping that alive.”
A girl in head-to-toe gold sequins looks over as she walks by, but keeps going.
The hundreds of nights that followed that first trip to Fells Point are all documented in two fat binders Heyn keeps on a shelf in his Waverly home. He recorded accounts of each one on the same Olympia manual typewriter, including the location, weather, points of astronomical interest, any notable visitors and, always, his take for the night — even a calculation of his hourly wage.
His careerlong earnings, collected in a hat he learned to secure to the base of his telescope, total nearly $200,000. In 2016, Parade magazine included him in its feature “What people earn.” His receipts that year: $6,423.
It doesn’t bother Heyn if some people aren’t interested in having a look, but when they do, every cent helps.
“How about if they look and don’t pay?” he jokes. “That’s the fate of a street performer.”
He worked for a time as a teacher at a school for troubled youth, but quit soon after he started telescoping at age 56. Apart from a short stint at the Maryland Science Center and his Social Security checks, the streetcorner tips are what he’s lived on — frugally.
Press clippings fill a third binder on Heyn’s shelf, documenting the recognition he’s received over the years.
A handful of quirky profiles in the early years. Stories about his legal battle, handled by pro bono lawyers, to set up his act at Harborplace. The news of his discovery that Baltimore’s compass-aligned street grid was laid out slightly off kilter.
Heyn and his telescope even earned a spot in a book: “100 Things To Do in Baltimore Before You Die.”
His letters have been published often in Sky and Telescope magazine, a bible for amateur astronomers. One ran in this year’s August issue about a recent marriage proposal at his telescope. The couple had met Heyn on their first date.
The magazine even blessed his naming of an obscure constellation near Sagittarius, four stars in the shape of a kite. It published a small map bearing its name: Herman’s Cross.
“And that, to me, makes it official,” Heyn says.
A beloved figure
Michael Gambuto, taking a friend from Rhode Island out for a night in Fells Point, spots Heyn about a quarter to 9. He won’t miss another chance to chat with the streetcorner astronomer he first met as a Towson State University student two decades ago.
“I’ve been partying down here forever,” Gambuto says. “Halloweens vomiting all over the place, you name it, and he’s always been out here. It’s incredible that he’s still out here.”
The 41-year-old says the astronomer’s contributions are immeasurable.
Heyn’s “every bit a part of Baltimore as the statues,” Gambuto says — someone who “stokes the flames of curiosity” in the city.
He’s not the only visitor this night with strong memories of Heyn. Peter Davidson spotted him earlier, texting his wife and friends about it. They shared a special night decades ago that Heyn’s telescope was a big part of. The memories are extra special as one of Davidson’s friends deals with Alzheimer’s, and as he himself recovers from cancer surgery.
He comes back to the corner for second visit, just to snap a picture.
If Heyn has a legacy, it’s not just those memories. He hopes that some of the children who have stretched their necks to look into his telescope have gone on to study science or astronomy, but he can’t be sure.
He knows of a handful of people he inspired to become amateur astronomers themselves, including Steve Rifkin, an information technology manager at the Johns Hopkins University, and Teresa Palomar, a former Western High School math teacher.
However much money Heyn collected, many of his visitors say his services were priceless. Nothing compares to seeing the heavens with your own eyes.
Planetary astronomer Heidi Hammel met Heyn in July 1994, after a week of 20-hour days at the Space Telescope Science Institute observing a comet strike Jupiter. Watching the event through the Hubble Space Telescope was a once-in-a-career opportunity. But it wasn’t until a dinner trip to Fells Point that its magnitude really hit her in the chest.
She looked in Heyn’s telescope and saw black spots across Jupiter’s massive surface.
“It changes people to look through a telescope and see it with their own eyes,” says Hammel, now executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. “I think it triggers something in your brain, or reaches you on a different emotional level.”
About 9:30, clouds approach and the weather starts to turn colder. Ed Lauer walks up to the telescope. He plays in the Juneways, the band at the Admiral’s Cup that provided the soundtrack to much of Heyn’s last night.
“Good to see you!” Lauer exclaims.
Heyn tells Lauer he decided earlier this year to retire, and that he agreed to set up on Thames Street one last time with a Baltimore Sun reporter and photographer. Lauer begs him to at least keep coming out once in a while, when the weather gets warm.
“A lot of people are going to miss you,” Lauer says.
Heyn has heard that sentiment a lot this night. Lisa Breslin, a dean at McDaniel College, offers to pick him up next time, and leaves her number. Other visitors look hopefully to Miles, Heyn’s neighbor, calling the boy Heyn’s apprentice. Heyn, at least for now, says he’s had such a great time, he’ll consider it.
By 9:40, clouds block out the moonshine, and Heyn decides it’s time to call it a night. The next band at the Admiral’s Cup starts up the drumbeat of the Strokes’ “Last Nite.”
A vicious wind picks up as Miles lifts the telescope from its base, lays it in a bed of green foam and shuts the metal case. Heyn collects his signs, hat and the embossed Post-It notes he’s always handed out, saying “I Saw the Moon” or “I Saw Mars in Fells Point.” They pile it all into the back of Heyn’s Subaru.
The wind is so strong, it knocks over a trash can. Heyn says that he’s never seen such a sudden gale in so many years on Baltimore streets.