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Jack Horkheimer, 72, 'Star Gazer' and host of public TV astronomy show, dies

At the end of his
At the end of his "Star Gazer" TV program, Jack Horkheimer reminded his many viewers to "Keep looking up!" (File Photo)

Jack Horkheimer was born Foley Arthur Horkheimer in Randolph, Wis., on June 11, 1938. He had a congenital degenerative lung disease that went undiagnosed until he was 18, leaving him with chronic pain and countless trips to the hospital.

His father, a wealthy publisher who served as mayor of Randolph, "wanted me to be an athlete and, because of my lungs, I could never hack it," Mr. Horkheimer told the Miami Herald in 1982. "I was always a failure in my father's eyes."

Mr. Horkheimer went to a Jesuit prep school, where he learned to play the organ, performing under the stage name "Horky." He later took the name Jack Foley and, eventually, Jack Horkheimer.

Through the years, Mr. Horkheimer struggled with depression, once spending five months in a mental hospital in Milwaukee and another time attempting to commit suicide by sitting out in the rain to catch pneumonia. He questioned his Catholic faith and eventually left the church.

He dropped out of two colleges before settling at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., where he studied drama and received a bachelor's degree in 1963.

His lungs had continued to deteriorate, and he moved to Miami in 1964 fully expecting, he said, to die. Instead, he met an astronomer who became a mentor and a father figure. It was because of that friendship that Mr. Horkheimer visited the planetarium and had an epiphany.

"I was in awe of the cosmos," he told the Miami Herald in 1978. He needed a substitute for the religion he'd lost, he said, and the stars provided it.

He began working for the planetarium in the 1960s and became director in 1973. He retired about two years ago. He was never married and had no immediate survivors.

In the mid-1970s, the local PBS affiliate approached him with an idea for a series of astronomy documentaries. Mr. Horkheimer agreed on the condition that he also produce a weekly five-minute segment. The first episode aired in 1976.

In early shows, Mr. Horkheimer was terribly professorial. When the show went national in 1985, the executive producer urged Mr. Horkheimer to lighten up and adopt a less-restrained character. Thus was born a more elated, more exaggerated version of Jack Horkheimer, Star Gazer, who ended each segment with an exhortation to viewers to "keep looking up!"

"I hated that character for two years. I wouldn't even watch my own TV show," he said in 2006. "Now, I like him. I realize that he is a character, that it's not me."

Professional astronomers often turned up their noses at Mr. Horkheimer's flashy tactics. He shrugged off such criticism.

"A planetarium is not for scientists. It's not for the PhD's," he said. "It's for the people."

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