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Vintage St. Pete: The Science Center (Part Two)

Bill DeYoung

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The Science Center of Pinellas County, a.k.a. the St. Petersburg Science Center, a.k.a. the Science Center. Photo: City of St. Petersburg.

Part two of three.

As the longest-tenured Science Center director (1979-2004), Susan Gordon looks back on the glory days with a mixture of pride and amazement.

“I loved knowing you could influence children,” she explains. “Science was a course that could be very dry in schools. And what we did was a hands-on program that supplemented what was being taught in the schools.”

Through arrangements with the Pinellas school system, and with private learning centers, students in grades K through 12 were bussed in weekday mornings, by grade level, for non-graded classes taught, almost exclusively, by retired professionals.

These instructors “loved it because they could set their own curriculum and they could teach what they wanted. They weren’t directed that they had to teach so-and-so.” The students enjoyed the sessions because they were low-pressure.

Gordon, a former high school science teacher with a BA in Science Education, succeeded Howard Michelet in the director’s role. She found herself at the head of a dozen-member staff, both full and part-time, which expanded to more than 30 during the busy summer months. Since public schools weren’t in session then, active teachers were happy to work with Science Center kids. “Our summer programs,” she says, “could fund almost the rest of the year for us.”

“One summer alone, we had 2,500 kids …” remembers Susan Gordon. “We nearly killed ourselves.” Video screengrab.

The center’s budgetary needs were otherwise met by private and corporate donations, trusts, an endowment, the Juvenile Welfare Board and city, county and state educational grants.

It was, in every sense, a community undertaking.

When repairs were needed, or additions called for, builders, painters, roofers and landscapers frequently stepped up and donated materials and time. If that wasn’t feasible, they’d perform the work at discounted rates.

In 1969, architect John David Parrish designed a curved concrete addition, to house a library and small planetarium. It was named for former bank president Starley M. White, who donated the $85,000 needed. White also donated a mosaic walkway – one large panel for each of the 50 states, including the state bird and the state flower – which became the centerpiece of the Science Center’s back yard garden.

The garden later included a life-sized reproduction of a Tocobaga Indian village – a 3-D look at Florida in the 16th century.

The Junior League gave them a van for a “mobile outreach program” to the schools.

NASA loaned the Science Center a Mercury space capsule, an Atlas booster and a section of a Titan missile.

The St. Petersburg Times donated a Honeywell H-1640 Series mainframe computer (“as big as somebody’s kitchen,” Gordon remembers) that spit out information on punch cards. In the early to mid 1970s, schools were opening their own computer labs, utilizing teletype tape and connected via telephone lines to the Science Center mainframe.

Long before the invention of the internet.

The Science Center constructed a working computer lab – with desktops that functioned as word processors and primitive mechanical brains. It quickly became the most occupied room in the building.

 “I would actually die without the computer,” said Northeast senior David Hyman. “It’s addicting. Once you get started, you can’t stop.” Adds fellow senior Richard Ross: “You can solve problems with the computer which can’t be done any other way.”  St. Petersburg Times/Feb. 11, 1975

St. Petersburg Times, Oct. 3, 1988

Sixteen MacIntosh computers were added – then replaced with more versatile Windows PCs (all the equipment was donated to the Science Center). A second lab opened. Adults took evening classes to learn about these new-fangled contraptions, including Susan Gordon’s lawyer husband Seymour. He took a photography class, too.

In 1992, legal secretary Connie Whitehead joined the fundraising Science Center Guild, and proceeded to construct a well-oiled system that included a yearly auction of everything from artwork to cruises and airline tickets. “I felt comfortable asking for an item, not money,” Whitehead says. “I wasn’t ready to ask for cash yet.”

That would change. Corporations, she discovered, have a specific fund set aside for nonprofit donations. When you mentioned the words “children” and “education,” out came the checkbooks. “It was easy,” she recalls. “Everybody knew why I was doing it.”

Whitehead had no previous experience in fundraising. She joined the Science Center team following the tragic death of her adult son in a traffic accident, looking for a way to keep her mind occupied.

She and her team transformed Science Center fundraising. For 20 years, she begged, borrowed and cadged, brainstorming dinners and galas and themed events at the Club at Treasure Island, the Don CeSar, downtown hotels and restaurants and other tony locales.

Seminole artist William Hisle volunteered to paint a 22-foot mural of the Space Shuttle Challenger on the planetarium building’s outer façade in 1993. He spent a total of 400 hours on the project, and added large planetary paintings to the Science Center’s interior.

The Carol Samuels Observatory. Photo provided.

Longtime supporters Carol and Allen Samuels donated $25,000 towards the construction of an observatory in the back yard area. In 1998 the Carol Samuels Observatory was fitted with an $18,000 research-grade Meade Instrument telescope for use by the 400-member St. Petersburg Astronomy Club, which met at the Science Center once a month.

“They were really great guys,” remembers Donna Vitale, the center’s animal curator (and an instructor) from 1989 to 2014. “Whenever there was some astrological event, an eclipse or something like that, the whole Astronomy Club would bring all their telescopes and set them up out in the back. And it would be open to the public.”

At other times, Vitale says, “the club would open up that giant telescope and train it on Saturn or Jupiter or Mars. People would walk up a little ladder to look in the eyepiece and see what they could see. It was a monster telescope.”

The Science Center menagerie included, at various times, red rat snakes, yellow rat snakes, ball pythons, rabbits, guinea pigs, hedgehogs, turtles, iguanas, lizards, tarantulas and scorpions. “All of those animals were used to teach our animal science classes,” notes Vitale.

There was Oogie the opossum, who occasionally escaped and could always be located by the sound of his claws clicking on the tile floor as he scuttled along in hiding. And Hamlette the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. “Hammie,” as the staff affectionately called her, would “visit” the animal science classes “and teach the kids how smart pigs are.”

Most popular was Monty the python, 14 feet in length and weighing 85 pounds. Scout troops would stand in a line, each boy holding a section of stretched-out Monty (a female), for a souvenir photograph. Monty, who lived in a tall glass case in the Animal Center, arrived at the Science Center the same year as Susan Gordon.

The marine touch tank. Video screengrab.

In the Marine Biology Room, raised three feet off the floor, stood a shallow, 600-gallon saltwater touch tank with clear plexiglass sides, containing starfish, sea urchins, crabs, fish and even small stingrays.

The Starley M. White Planetarium. Photo provided.

Although the planetarium could only seat 35, it was a popular weekend attraction for the public, particularly when the computerized Media Globe full color projection system ($200,000) was installed – at the flick of a switch, the planetarium’s domed ceiling could reproduce any night sky in history, or any known celestial event. It was an advanced tool for learning the planets and the constellations, and the ways in which they interact and affect each other.

On Sept. 9, 2010, Science Center students were able to talk to astronauts living aboard the International Space Station via a NASA-supplied downlink.

By then, Susan Gordon had retired. After an accident in her home, while playing with her 3-year-old grandson, she decided she’d had enough. “I was there 25 years, and you almost work 24 hours a day raising money,” she explains. “The board didn’t do too much.”

Sept. 9, 2010: Talking with the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Video screengrab.

She left in 2004. “The last years I was there, we were running anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 students through there a year, from Kindergarten to adults. One summer alone, we had 2,500 kids, although not all at one time. We nearly killed ourselves.”

Whitehead says she resigned – some years later – for similar reasons. She was unhappy with the board of directors. “I just didn’t feel they did anything. They had their name on the letterhead, and that was it.”

The years ahead would bring modernizations and upgrades, and a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.

Seymour and Susan Gordon, 2024. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Although not every young person who came to the Science Center went on to change the world, Gordon says she still – 20 years after her retirement – hears from people whose children launched their careers with those classes.

“These are people who are so glad their children had that push,” she beams. “It’s amazing when you find out that they’re doctors, they’re scientists, they’re research people. There was one time when almost every major computer company had people that had been students at the Science Center.”

Not long ago, at a busy brunch, the Gordons invited another couple to join them at their table. “I said ‘I’m Susan Gordon …’ and the woman said ‘You don’t have to introduce yourself.’ She gave me her name, and then she said ‘I took my son to the Science Center every summer. And now he’s working on AI.’

Read Part One here

Coming Wednesday: Part Three: What happened, and what’s next?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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