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July 10, 2007 > Kingsley Wightman (1916-2007):

Kingsley Wightman (1916-2007):

Chabot Space & Science Center educator and director

Kingsley Wightman, the charismatic teacher who entertained, inspired and educated generations of Chabot Science Center visitors and led an impassioned battle to keep the institution's doors open, died in Oakland Thursday, July 5 after a prolonged illness. He was 91.

"Kingsley Wightman was the most stabilizing force in the modern history of this institution (renamed Chabot Space & Science Center in 2000)," said Chabot board president Dick Spees, an Oakland City Councilmember from 1979-2003. "All the great teachers combine scholarship with acting ability, and Kingsley performed on the stage of education with great dignity and knowledge."

Wightman - a math and science teacher at Oakland's Lowell Junior High - was hired by the city's school board to moonlight as Chabot's astronomy instructor in 1948. Thus began an extraordinary 46-year relationship with Chabot. Universally recognized by generations of teachers, students and administrators as one of Oakland's most gifted educators, Wightman was also a master of diplomacy who was unrelenting - and selfless - in his quest for funding from its school board.

"Kingsley was very polite, unbelievably charming and incredibly engaging - a gentlemen's gentlemen," said Dr. Terry Galloway, a Chabot board member and volunteer for the past 40 years. "He is the standard by which I have come to judge everyone else, and very few people have met that standard. But he also had a lot of guts and was fearlessly creative when it came to saving the Science Center."

So ubiquitous was Wightman at Chabot that he served as its de facto director for years when no such position existed. But he was clearly in charge from 1976 until 1989. Wightman's era of leadership at Chabot is perhaps best summarized by one of his quotes inscribed at the observatory exhibit honoring him: "They say, 'Kingsley, we don't have enough money to teach reading, writing and arithmetic. Why should we be teaching astronomy?' But then they get one look through the telescope."

Wightman guided Chabot from near closure after its aging Mountain Boulevard observatory atop the Hayward Fault was banned for use by students in 1977 to the planning stages of its state-of-the-art complex on Skyline Boulevard. His legacy, however, will undoubtedly be defined by the estimated 500,000 students spanning 46 years who were mesmerized by his unique classroom presentations, scrambled for seats in his planetarium shows and jockeyed for time with him at Chabot's telescopes.

"He had a most unusual flare for teaching science," said Chabot astronomer Conrad Jung, who was mentored by Wightman, "and there was no audience, young or old, that he couldn't reach."

Wightman's lessons were never short on showmanship. In an effort to convey why hydrogen was used to make rocket fuel, he would fill a balloon with that element, simultaneously invoking dire warnings of hydrogen's explosive nature. Enlisting a volunteer, he would make a clumsy attempt to pass the balloon, instead allowing it to float to the ceiling as he feigned dread at the consequences. Wightman would then produce a pole with a candle at the end, light it, ask someone to turn out the lights, hand the disoriented volunteer a pair of safety goggles and encourage him/her to raise the flame to the hovering balloon - after noting that he'd be watching from a safe distance. Invariably, audiences expecting the worst were jolted by the minor combustion that ensued.

Wightman was a tireless - and courteously defiant - champion of the institution founded by Anthony Chabot in 1883. As the outdated Mountain Boulevard structure (opened in 1915) became a liability to the school board - Chabot's primary source of funding before the JPA was established in 1989 - Wightman countered plans to sell off its assets by conjuring up inventive sources of revenue. He gutted Chabot's biology lab to install the Bay Area's first computer lab, teaching Fortran programming, in 1969.

After becoming director, he undermined the announcement by the Oakland school board that his position would no longer be funded by declaring that he would work without salary. He did - for 10 years. During that era, Chabot board members became accustomed to late-night calls from Wightman, who liked to brainstorm at the end of 15-hour work days. In 1980, after the school board chained and padlocked the Mountain Boulevard location in a final effort to turn out its lights, Wightman and Galloway organized hundreds of teachers, students and other supporters who filled out speaker cards for a school board meeting and then marched to the microphone, one by one, to testify on Chabot's behalf into the wee hours of the morning. The shell-shocked school board had the chains removed the next day.

All the while, Wightman was plotting to rebuild Chabot at another location - a process that encompassed more than 30 years.

"Kingsley took on more and more jobs so that, by the time he retired the first time (in 1989), we figured he was doing three full-time jobs," said Carter Roberts, the 20-year president of Eastbay Astronomical Society, one of Chabot's governing partners for the past 18 years. "Without Kingsley, none of us who devote significant time to Chabot would be doing this."

Wightman, who never stopped teaching, continued to consult at Chabot until a series of strokes forced his definitive retirement in 1994.

"Kingsley Wightman's legacy permeates everything within the walls of this institution," said Chabot Executive Director & CEO Alexander Zwissler. "He laid the groundwork for Chabot's strong bond with our community. His persistence and passion is the reason we now look unimpeded to the future, to Chabot's 125th anniversary celebration in 2008. His work goes on."

He is survived by his only child, Dan Wightman of Oakland, four granddaughters and the observatory plaza bearing his name at the new Chabot Space & Science Center on Skyline Boulevard.

"He had this great public career in astronomy, but he was also a devoted grandfather to four granddaughters who thought the world of him - and vice-versa," Dan Wightman said. "He was a happy guy. He was proud of graduating from UC-Berkeley and he was proud of what he did. And I'm proud of him."

A public memorial honoring Wightman will be held at Chabot Space & Science Center at 6 p.m. on Friday, July 20. A memorial Mass will precede that service (time TBA) at Our Lady of Lourdes in Oakland.

The Wightman family has requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Kingsley Wightman Memorial Fund at Chabot Space & Science Center. Consult Chabot's web site (www.chabotspace.org) for more details.

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