Wineka column: Through her planetarium programs, retiring ‘Star Lady’ Patsy Wilson filled our world with wonder

  • Posted: Wednesday, May 29, 2013 1:17 a.m.
JON C. LAKEY / Patsy Wilson looks at the starfield projected on the dome from the 1960s-era Spitz A3P planetarium at Horizons Unlimited in Salisbury. Wilson has been working as the operator of the Margaret C. Woodson Planetarium for 17 years. On Wednesday, after spending 29 plus years in the education field, Wilson will retire from the Rowan-Salisbury School system.
JON C. LAKEY / Patsy Wilson looks at the starfield projected on the dome from the 1960s-era Spitz A3P planetarium at Horizons Unlimited in Salisbury. Wilson has been working as the operator of the Margaret C. Woodson Planetarium for 17 years. On Wednesday, after spending 29 plus years in the education field, Wilson will retire from the Rowan-Salisbury School system.

SALISBURY — Before she leaves the Margaret C. Woodson Planetarium for good today, Patsy Wilson plans to take some time in the dark for herself.

For the past 17 years, this has been her under-the-dome universe. So many people have seen constellations and planets here — roughly 10,000 students and adults a year — that when folks see her out in public, the first thing coming to mind is, “There goes the star lady.”


So give Wilson this time alone.

With the lights down and a star-filled sky above her, she might mix in the music of Pink Floyd, U2, Metallica or Led Zeppelin — the background beats to all her laser light shows.

Wilson’s programs and shows created a stairway to heaven for many of us.

“She has transformed space science education and the lives of thousands of students and citizens of Rowan,” says Lisa Wear, director of Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ Horizons Unlimited, where the planetarium has been in operation since 1968.

“Her work will continue to serve as a model for educators and research partners across the nation.”

Wilson, 61, is retiring after 29-plus years in public education.

At a recent retirement lunch, Wilson’s fellow educators presented her with a T-shirt that says, “Back in My Day, There Were Nine Planets,” a reference to poor Pluto’s no longer being considered one of those nine.

Wilson plans to stay busy as a planetarium consultant; an active member of the Carolina Association of Planetarium Educators and the Southeastern Planetarium Association, for which she is past president and current secretary-treasurer; and registrar for the N.C. State Science Fair.

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While most people know her as the “star lady,” Wilson also has been a key person behind county, regional and state science fair competitions and the most recent summer Space Camp trips to NASA’s facilities in Huntsville, Ala.

Wilson says she found her biggest rewards in having students and Scouts in her planetarium classroom and serving special populations such as Timber Ridge — “I love those boys,” she says. She also has a great affection for the developmentally disabled adults for whom she has given programs through the Salisbury Parks and Recreation Department.

“We have aged together,” Wilson says. “It’s a real thrill to know them by name.”

Wilson instituted the once-a-month Saturday shows at 5 and 6:30 p.m. for the public (during the school year). In 2006, she oversaw an upgrade to the planetarium from slide-based programming to digital projection.

She also has made the planetarium available to earth science classes at Catawba, Livingstone and Rowan-Cabarrus Community colleges.

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From the beginning, the planetarium’s 30-foot dome has depended on a Spitz A3P projector, which Wilson speaks of with reverence. The projector is out of production, and the planetarium relies on annual grants from the Margaret C. Woodson Foundation for its maintenance.

The cushioned seats — the planetarium has seating for 75 — lean back so visitors can see everything projected on the dome. And, of course, things get dark.

Wilson admits the planetarium sometimes creates the perfect storm of conditions for sleep, especially for overworked teachers or a senior citizens group that has just come from lunch.

She told senior citizens she charged $5 for snoring.

“Yes, people do fall asleep here a lot,” she says.

But Wilson never tired of sensing the wonder in the room — among students and adults — when the planetarium lights went down, the projector came on and a star- and planet-filled sky were above her audience.

Almost always, when she asked adults to find the North Star, or Polaris, they would point to the brightest star high in the sky. But they were way off, not knowing the North Star is only the 50th brightest, Wilson says.

When she would ask her young students what happened to Pluto and why wasn’t it considered a planet any longer, an answer she regularly heard was, “It got blown up.”

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Patsy Wilson is a Rowan County native and graduate of South Rowan High School.

She earned a degree in consumer economics from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, then went an additional year to Catawba College for her educational certifications.

Wilson started out teaching a combined fifth- and sixth-grade class at Enochville Elementary School for three years, then a fifth-grade class at Hurley Elementary School for four years.

Substitute teaching at times, she took an 11-year break to be a stay-at-home mother for her and husband Dean’s daughters, Gwynne and Alicia.

Before going back to work, she substituted a whole semester at Hurley Elementary for a sixth-grade class, then she was hired on full-time in Horizons Unlimited’s Learn and Live health museum.

Then Horizons Unlimited Director Cyndi Osterhus also managed the planetarium, and she began looking for a staff person to take over some of the programming.

She taught Wilson many of the intricacies behind the Spitz A3P projector until the day came when Osterhus asked, “Do you want to continue to learn, or do you just want to do it?”

“I said, ‘I’ll just do it,’” Wilson recalls.

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A child of the Space Age and a recent high school graduate when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, Wilson loved the planetarium from the start, reflecting her strong interest in science.

She immediately became wrapped up in the technology, equipment and programming connected with her new home, though she had no background in astronomy.

“I’m kind of self-taught,” she says.

Wilson found it easy to learn the mechanics of using the projector. Meanwhile, she beefed up her knowledge of astronomy and planetariums by attending conferences, such as SEPA’s annual gathering and NASA workshops near and far.

Wear, the Horizons Unlimited director, says Wilson “developed valuable educational experiences and resources for teachers and students” through her grant-writing and partnerships with SEPA Space Alliance and NASA.

Wilson allowed students to see the world from the unique perspective of space, Wear says.

“These experiences help students understand earth as a dynamic system — an interconnected geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere,” Wear says, adding these kinds of specific tools and solutions are transforming weather forecasting, environmental protection, disaster management, telecommunications and medical research.

So Wilson has been much more than a planetarium director.

“Patsy Wilson brought about a new revolution in earth and space science education,” Wear says.

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Wilson says Rowan-Salisbury Schools and the community it serves are “extremely fortunate” to have the planetarium they do. Few school-system planetariums in the country are located in a separate science center and not connected to a specific school.

Since January, Wilson has been training her replacement, Jennifer Barbee, who had been a fifth-grade teacher at Enochville Elementary. Wilson also is leaving her a training manual and guidebook.

Often, when young students settle into the Woodson Planetarium for the first time, they expect Wilson to open the dome above them, revealing the real sky.

With the Spitz A3P projector, Wilson did the next best thing, and she built a true legacy.

She left us all looking up.



Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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