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Herman Heyn, Baltimore’s beloved streetcorner astronomer, dies at 90

From 2018: 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)

Herman Heyn, Baltimore’s street corner astronomer, who set up a telescope at the harbor in Fells Point and explained the starry skies to thousands of curious stargazers, died Wednesday of stroke and other causes at St. Joseph University of Maryland Medical Center. The Waverly resident was 90.

In November 2018, he stopped setting up his telescope at the foot of Broadway. It was his 2,858th visit.

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“He’s part scientist, part street performer, having beamed glimpses of Saturn, Jupiter and elusive comets to Baltimore sidewalks for nearly 31 years,” said a Baltimore Sun article written at the time of his retirement.

“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.”

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Mr. Heyn often said about the moon, “It’s always this beautiful.”

He made nearly $200,000 in money people dropped by his telescope during his 31 years explaining the heavens.

Mr. Heyn was born in Baltimore, the son of Milton Heyn, who owned a women’s and children’s clothes shop called Heyn’s Broadway Best, and his wife, Ernestine Stern, a homemaker. He attended Garrison Junior High School, where he was introduced to astronomy by a teacher.

“I can pin that down exactly,” he said in a 1993 Sun article. “It started with Miss Wicker in the seventh grade at Garrison Junior High School. I can still see her: silver glasses, slightly curly hair, slightly buck teeth — a really dynamic teacher. One day, Miss Wicker drew the Big Dipper on the blackboard, and I copied it down.”

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He was a 1949 graduate of Baltimore City College and a member of its swimming team. He served in Korea as a radio technician in the Army. He attended the University of North Carolina before his military service and later received a bachelor’s degree in education from Coppin State University.

In the 1960s he was active in anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements. As a young man he worked as a concrete inspector, office manager for a small construction company, Enoch Pratt Free Library worker and a teacher of troubled youth.

Mr. Heyn also set up his telescope at St. Paul and 31st streets and at Harborplace.

“I always enjoyed looking at whatever he was pointing out when he had his telescope set up there,” said John McDaniel, a former Charles Village resident.

“Herman was a wonderful brother who took me along on many exciting adventures like chasing solar eclipses around the country and climbing mountains. I was usually recruited to carry his photo equipment,” said his brother, John Heyn. " Herman was a great teacher of science, and I learned more about the stars and atoms from him than I did in four years of college courses.”

Mr. Heyn was passionate about educating the public about astronomy and giving them the opportunity to share his excitement.

“I wanted to share my love of the night sky with as many people as possible,” he said in a Sun article. “I think everybody once in their lifetime deserves to see the rings of Saturn through a telescope or the mountains and craters.”

Mr. Heyn was a regular visitor to the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus to use computers, do research, and write numerous letters to the editor at The Sun.

“Some of his longtime friends were students interested in astronomy who befriended him poring over an astronomy magazine,” said his daughter, Eve. “Until a few years ago, he would bicycle to Hopkins. In fact, he began bicycling to work and everywhere in the 1960s.”

She said that while at home he typed articles and his correspondence on an Olympia manual typewriter.

“While Herman was a true Baltimore character, he was someone who was trying to share his love of beauty beyond day-to-day life,” said a friend, Kevin Cleary. “He showed us the beauty of the planets and stars.”

Mr. Heyn was a Viva House volunteer. He donated hundreds of copies of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book “The Sky Is Not the Limit” to Baltimore City public schools.

“He loved to play the accordion — songs from ‘The Sound of Music,’ show tunes, all by ear. He also attended concerts at Peabody Conservatory,” said his daughter.

He was a member of the Baltimore Folk Music Society and enjoyed square and contra dancing.

“Growing up, our summer vacations revolved around chasing eclipses,” his daughter said. " I remember our family of five driving to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun in the 1970s, camping along the way.”

She also said, “He would wake we three kids up at 2 a.m. and take us out in the backyard in our pajamas to see celestial events like a lunar eclipse or meteor shower or a comet.”

Mr. Heyn donated his body to the Maryland Anatomy Board. Plans for a memorial service are being made.

In addition to his daughter and brother, survivors include two sons, Frank Heyn of Amsterdam and Kenneth Heyn of Toulouse, France; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Heyn had been married to Leah Lurie Heyn, and while they divorced, they remained friends. He is also survived by a friend, Phyllis Weber of St. Louis.

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.

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