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Stargazing From The Street Corner, Telescope And Hat In Hand

Herman Heyn, 84, with his nephew John Heyn on a recent visit with StoryCorps.
Herman Heyn, 84, with his nephew John Heyn on a recent visit with StoryCorps.

If you've ever visited the Fells Point neighborhood on the Baltimore waterfront, you may have noticed an older man standing on the street corner, telescope in hand. Herman Heyn, self-proclaimed "star hustler," has been setting up in the same place almost every night, offering passersby glimpses of the galaxy for close to three decades.

He knows, because he's been keeping count.

"I just finished my 27th year. I've been out on the street 2,637 times," he says. "It's like being on a Broadway show that has a long run."

Heyn, who's 84 years old, recently talked with his nephew, John, on a visit with StoryCorps. And John wanted to know: What exactly did his uncle want to be when he grew up?

"I guess I wanted to be a scientist, but I have certain kinds of learning disabilities," Heyn recalls. "My mother used to say, 'You can spell Andromeda, but you can't spell anything they want you to do in school.' I don't know, some people like trees, some people like birds. For me, it was stars."

But the path that little kid took to become Baltimore's most recognizable street-corner astronomer wasn't exactly a straight shot. For years, he says, he tried working for "the man" — without a whole lot of success.

"Each time I'd start a new job I'd say, 'I'm going to stay with it, get benefits, get retirement.' But three years later I couldn't stand it anymore," Heyn says. "I had to get out of there and got another job."

It all followed a certain pattern, in other words, a pattern that didn't leave him all that satisfied. On one night — Nov. 13, 1987, he remembers well — that pattern derailed.

"It was a really beautiful evening, the moon was up. And I decided, 'Heck, I'm going to take my telescope on the street, and invite people to look at the moon and Jupiter,' " he says. "And as I was walking out the door I said, 'I'll take a hat with me and see what happens.' "

He figured he could make a bit of money on tips from passersby who wanted to take a look at the night sky with his telescope. He wasn't wrong.

"That first night I made $10. And I went back the next night and made $40, and that's how it started."

Still, he traces his love for the stars back even further: to Ms. Wicker's eighth-grade science class.

"She drew the Big Dipper on the blackboard, [and] said, 'Go find it tonight.' I found it and got hooked with astronomy since that very moment."

That anecdote was included in a 1997 profile of Heyn in The Baltimore Sun, and apparently Ms. Wicker herself saw it. She called him up, and they became good friends, he says — to the point that, when she died some time later, he says he offered a eulogy at her funeral.

That moment of inspiration he experienced in her class — he says his great hope is to pay that favor forward. Some have taken up astronomy themselves after looking through his telescope; someone else named a boat after a planet.

"It makes me feel it's worthwhile, what I'm doing, that I'm doing a good thing," Heyn says.

Even better yet: "I've been hoping that somebody would come along and say, 'I got my Ph.D. in astronomy having first looked through your telescope' — but it hasn't happened ... yet," he says with a laugh.

"I'm hoping it still may."

Produced forMorning Editionby Liyna Anwar and Maya Millett.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life,

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