The observatory at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Knight Campus still inspires some awe in Professor Emeritus Margaret M. Jacoby.
It had been 15 years since she visited the observatory bearing her name, and her recent visit – as we approach its 40th academic year of use – prompted her to share memories of lunar events, star clusters, astronomy courses and the hectic week in 1985 when visitors flocked to the observatory to get a glimpse of Halley’s Comet.
“This was my love. This was always called Professor Jacoby’s baby,” she said. “I saw it grow from nothing to a full-fledged observatory. It was my lifelong desire to share what was up in the sky to people who enjoy looking at it.”
Her legacy at CCRI will be forever linked to the Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory, a brick and mortar testament to her passion for astronomy and teaching. She passed this passion to CCRI students over her 31 years in the college’s Physics Department and inspired members of the community who visited CCRI to get a glimpse of the stars.
“I have always, since I was little, been fascinated by objects in the sky,” she said, and it was her lifelong desire to share that with others.
CCRI’s first president, Dr. William F. Flanagan, invited Jacoby to establish Rhode Island Junior College’s Physics Department in 1965. She created astronomy and physics courses and partnered with her alma mater, Brown University, to use its Ladd Observatory for student study. She crafted a rigorous curriculum that mirrored courses at four-year colleges in the area.
“I sent a syllabus to each of the major colleges and had them critique and adjust as needed. I felt it gave our students the right to take four-year college courses right here at CCRI,” she said.
She had always wanted an observatory for CCRI and eventually started a process of applying for more than 60 grants. Once she received enough money to qualify for matching federal funds, she began designing the observatory. She included extra storage space and a raised floor that would allow for safer observing, among other design elements.
In 1978, the telescope arrived and the observatory opened. Jacoby knows the computerized telescope in the observatory now is easier to use, but she still enjoyed her connection to the original one.
“Your head was the computer. It was easy. I think not having a computerized telescope brought students closer to the basics than pressing a button on a computer,” she said.
Jacoby dedicated herself to growing the program, creating brochures and sending them to area schools and local interest groups. She secured funds for a work study program that allowed for four CCRI students to work as her assistants. Newspaper reporters routinely turned to Jacoby for information regarding astronomical events, and others regularly consulted her about problems with their telescopes. Viewers included first- and second-year students, plus accredited evening classes and the general public on visitor nights.
She purchased a hydrogen solar filter for the telescope that allowed daytime observation and donated it to the college when she retired. She began every observation period with a mini-lecture explaining the objects in the sky as well as their importance in the universe.
“The more you know about what’s up there, the more you can appreciate what’s up there,” Jacoby said.
She said she loved her CCRI students because they showed so much passion for their work. “The students really enjoyed the fact that they had the opportunity to be in college,” she said. “Students were eager and engaged.”
The observatory was a popular draw for solar observing and lunar eclipses, but nothing compares to the week in 1985 when visitors flooded the observatory to see Halley’s Comet, which was visible for the first time in more than 70 years. She relied on students to assist with the crowds during the busiest five-night stretch of her career, and rewarded them with a special certificate from the official Halley’s Comet Commission.
She oversaw vital repairs to the observatory’s dome in the 1990s and the addition of a portable wheelchair ramp. In 1994, she was awarded a national award for excellence in instruction for her use of the observatory as a teaching instrument. In 1995, CCRI officially dedicated the observatory to her.
“It was a lovely ceremony. It was a small ceremony, but it was a very nice ceremony,” she said.