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Ed Megill spends much of his time starry-eyed, head craned skyward and thoughts consumed by the celestial bodies twinkling above.

As longtime director of the Santa Rosa Junior College Planetarium, Megill shares his passion with thousands of visitors each year who attend public shows or go on classroom field trips from throughout the Bay Area.

Megill, 75, has the same passion for the universe he discovered as a 10-year-old when he peered through a telescope for the first time. He’s been mesmerized by the night sky ever since.

“I’ll never forget going to the University of Denver and that observatory,” the Colorado native said. “That kind of really started it.”

He didn’t have an opportunity to visit a planetarium until adulthood, when he and his wife took an astronomy class together at SRJC. Once he stepped into the domed theater in Lark Hall, Megill was transported to another world.

He shares that wonder with visitors of all ages, many of them experiencing a planetarium show for the first time.

Megill produces four new hour-long shows each year, an effort that takes from three weeks to three months, depending on the subject.

He’s careful to select topics that aren’t “too esoteric” for those with little scientific knowledge.

“It needs to be instructional, and it needs to be entertaining,” he said. “It has to interest the widest spread of folks who come in.”

Where programs about extraterrestrials once guaranteed a crowd, “We don’t talk about little green men in here. That doesn’t work anymore.”

Instead, visitors find shows like “The Path to Cygnus X-1,” a stellar black hole some 6,100 light years from Earth, or “Astronomical Oddities,” a look into mind-boggling space discoveries within our universe.

The live presentations are all set to music, with Megill especially fond of classical, new age and movie scores. Songs from the animated film series “The Land Before Time” are among his favorites.

Megill has been with the planetarium since 1989, since taking early retirement from a 29-year career in telecommunications at AT&T. Although his first career had nothing to do with astronomy, his boyhood interest in the galaxies never waned.

When Megill and his wife began taking classes at SRJC after moving to Rohnert Park in 1967, he was so fascinated by the astronomy courses “you just could not let your brain wander,” he said. “You just sucked up everything.”

One class led to another and another and another.

“That was it. I put everything else way in the background,” Megill said.

His programs utilize analog equipment, nothing digital or computerized. He’s become something of a wizard at the control panel, using dozens of switches and knobs to project countless images onto the planetarium dome with impeccable timing and synchronicity.

“We don’t buy any canned programs. All our programs we create; we decide what to do and we produce them at SRJC,” he said.

Built in 1979 and measuring 27 feet high, with a dome 40 feet in diameter, the planetarium is equipped with 125 special-effects projectors tucked into coves and pit areas circling the theater.

Megill has a library of thousands of slides showcasing planets, meteors, asteroids, auroras, eclipses, comets, supernovae and other wonders light years away.

The 80-slide carousel projectors are used alongside a sophisticated electromechanical star projector that takes center stage in the 90-seat planetarium.

Purchased for “a deal” at $125,000 when the planetarium opened, the star projector still has the capacity to impress.

While other planetariums have become “IMAX theaters on steroids,” Megill says few match the quality found at SRJC.

“This is one of the few places in the Bay Area that has 360 degrees around and actually has a dome,” Megill said. “To be in here and present a show is a privilege.”

About 6,000 people attend public shows each year, from families and couples on date nights to groups from senior centers and scouting organizations.

A recent show brought a gathering of 10 nuns in habits, “probably one of the most unexpected (groups) we’ve seen in a while,” Megill said. “We have a very wide spread of the community that comes in here. Most of them really pay attention.”

Additionally, some 10,000 students from elementary, middle and high schools step into the planetarium each year for one of seven school programs offered weekly throughout the school year.

The planetarium also is used as a teaching facility for SRJC students.

During the summertime, the planetarium hosts groups from Santa Rosa recreation camps and students attending Sonoma State University’s Excel program.

Megill considers himself and his staff ambassadors for the junior college. He views every visitor as a potential student – or the parents of potential students.

“I like them to leave with the notion education is something that can be fun,” he said.

Megill praises the talents of employees Travis Job and Landen Coffey, who help with programs, and administrative assistant Jessica Carter. Four weekend workers also keep things running smoothly.

Megill knows firsthand about the transformative power of an engaging planetarium show. He experienced it the first time he attended a SRJC show and recognizes that magical moment when visitors become absorbed by stars, planets and constellations.

“You can tell by the look on their faces when they’re thinking things over,” he said. “There’s so much potential to really change lives.”

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.

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