Wausau West planetarium founder, educator dies

Wausau West planetarium founder, educator dies
Posted on 10/18/2018

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Wausau West planetarium founder, educator dies

Harkness recognized as master teacher by NYT

Keith Uhlig Wausau Daily Herald USA TODAY NETWORK - WISCONSIN

WAUSAU - Jon Harkness, a longtime Wausau School District science teacher responsible for the installation of the planetarium at Wausau West High School, has died.

Harkness died last month at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota, after an illness following emergency bowel resection surgery, according to his son Jay Harkness. He was 78 years old.

The Wausau School District hired Harkness in 1962 a month after he was married and a few months after he graduated with a degree in physics from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He taught high school students for 33 years, first at Wausau High School, then at Wausau West when it opened in 1970. He was an intelligent, ethical and strong leader, said colleagues who worked with him, and his career arc reflected those qualities. Before he retired in 1995, Harkness was chairman of the Wausau High School science department, the district’s K-12 science curriculum supervisor and president of the Wausau Education Association, the local teachers’ union.

Harkness also served outside the school district on educational organizations such as the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers and the National Science Teachers Association.

President Jimmy Carter appointed him as a member of the National Council on Educational Research in 1980. In 1983, The New York Times used Harkness as an example of a "master teacher" in an article about using the title to denote recognition and status for educators, possibly leading to higher pay.

"I think his passion was evident to everyone," said Jay Harkness of Maple Grove, Minnesota. "He really believed that science was not a collection of stale facts to be memorized, but a process involving lots of curiosity and creativity."

Jay Harkness took classes from his father. "He was a really good teacher. There was no illusion he was your friend. There was absolutely zero disciplinary problems. He was one of those teachers who could set a tone where

See HARKNESS, Page 3A

Throughout his career, Jon Harkness was the subject, or wrote, many articles for the Wausau Daily Herald.

KEITH UHLIG/USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN

Harkness

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misbehavior was unthinkable," he said. "(But) he made science really interesting. He was one of those teachers who was supportive ... and he knew it was about sharing a moment of discovery."

Jon Harkness was dedicated to the pursuit of science and to teaching it, said Allan Solomonson, a history teacher who worked with him.

"Jon was very adept at understanding principles of education, and he really understood what science education should be," Solomonson said. "He wanted to show how science was connected to other disciplines."

As the science department chairman, Harkness often attended scientific and educational conferences. Planning had begun for Wausau West High School when he attended a conference where he learned that federal money could be garnered to bolster math and science education.

This was during the space race, Solomonson said, and Harkness helped the school district get a $100,000 grant to include a planetarium in the building plans for the new West High.

"We were one of the few high schools in the state, maybe the only one, that had a planetarium," Solomonson said. "It’s a gold standard that every district would like to have. And Jon Harkness gets all the credit. Nobody would have ever thought of putting a planetarium in a high school without him."

The Wausau School District planetarium received a digital upgrade in 2017, allowing for it to be used for a wider variety of programs. It’s used by the district and others from around the region, and also offers public use.

Harkness also was regularly featured in the Wausau Daily Herald and did not shy from controversy, especially when he felt that science curriculum could be diluted. One example: In January 1982, he wrote a column arguing that creationism should not be taught in science classrooms: "Creationism is religion, not science."

"Science is an attempt to explain nature and its phenomena; it is an attempt to know and understand the universe through empirical (study of nature) investigation," he wrote.

Those who argued for the teaching of creationism, alternatively, "invoked the supernatural, which is clearly outside the realm of scientific inquiry," he wrote.

Harkness grew up mostly in Spooner. His father, Leroy, died while working on the railroad when he was 2 years old, and he was raised by his mother, Margaret, and his aunt and uncle who lived across the street.

He married Barbara "Buzzy" Stewart in 1962. In addition to Jay, the couple had another son, Harry, who is a computer engineer living in the Boston area. After Harkness retired in 1995, he and Barbara moved back to the Northwoods. For the last 20 or so years, they have lived on Cranberry Lake near Barnes in northwest Wisconsin.

An event commemorating Harkness’ life will be held in the Barnes area during the summer of 2019.