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Profiles in Badassery: Jack Horkheimer

When I started the Profiles in Badassery series I wanted to honor Purdue's great alumni and faculty base. Some have been well known, while other have been rather obscure. What I didn't expect was for the series to become so popular with you readers. I have at least four submissions in my e-mail inbox right now from readers suggesting individuals for Profiles in Badassery. This is very much appreciate because it draws my attention to people I wouldn't otherwise think of. Today's profile was a reader submission from Frank Dolk who suggested astronomer Jack Horkheimer a few weeks ago.

Early Life

Foley Arthur Horkheimer, better known as Jack Horkheimer since Foley isn't a very popular name to attract the ladies, was born June 11, 1938 Randolph, Wisconsin to the son of a publisher and mayor of the town. Horkheimer was born with an unfortunate congential degenerative lung disorder known as bronchiectasis. This caused him chronic pain and nearly resulted in his death several times. By age 18 he developed radiation sickness and lost most of his hair because of medical X-ray treatments when he was finally diagnosed with the disease.

This condition did not prevent him from pursuing his passion, however. From an early age he had a penchant for showbusiness. He began hosting a radio show at age 15 in his home town on radio station WBEV. In 1956 he graduated from Campion Jesuit High School, earning himself admission to Purdue. During his summers away from West Lafayette he traveled around the country playing jazz piano and organ under the name "Horky". That is where he eventually changed his name to Jack Foley Horkheimer because he needed a better name to combat the early baldness from his illness.

It took him awhile to graduate because of his extracurriculars, but he left Purdue in 1963 with a bachelor of science degree as a distinguished scholar.

Move to Miami

It was around this time that Horkheimer's illness began to get worse. In 1964 he moved to Miami because the warm humid air made it easier for him to breathe, which is kind of important. When I am bundled up to walk outside this time of year in below zero weather I can't say I blame him for wanting to move there. Maybe I can get a prescription from my doctor that says I have to move there myself. Mrs. T-Mill won't mind at all.

Once in Miami, he began volunteering at the Miami Science Museum Plenetarium, which is a very cool museum I plan on visiting the next time I go down in April. This volunteer role eventually led to him becoming the museum's director in 1973. This was the start of a lifelong career in astronomy that led to his fame and Badassery. At the Miami Science Museum he met Arthur Smith. Since many badasses were named Arthur (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and King Arthur to name a few) the united power of two Arthurs was unstoppable.

Horkheimer began writing shows as a volunteer at the museum and Smith eventually offered him a position full-time. Smith asked Horkheimer to run the Miami Space Transit Planetarium when it opened in 1966.This was likely based on a new interest in Astronomy that came as a result of the space program. Since there were several Purdue alumni involved in the race to the moon it was only natural that Horkheimer would be involved in this growing field. Horkheimer's shows were quite successful. The planetarium went from losing money to becoming profitable, thus tying in with another Purdue badass trait: success in the business world. Horkheimer would eventually become the planetarium's educational director, then executive director.

Horkheimer had success because he changed the planetarium show from a dull science lecture into a multimedia event. This included lights, music, and narration. In 1972 he created the Child of the Universe show for the planetarium, which became quite famous and was used in planetariums around the country. Sally Jesse Raphael, when not refereeing fights between cross-dressing Nazi prostitutes and their Communist Black Panther pimps played the voice of the Solar System in this show. The show won an international award from the society of European astronomers in 1976 after Horkheimer became Executive Director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium in 1973. It was a role he would serve in for 35 years until 2008.

Jack Horkheimer: Conquerer of Worlds Star Gazer

No wonder this man stayed single.

Horkheimer's work as Executive Director for the Planetarium eventually led to a local television show in 1976. It was originally titled Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler and played on the free love movement as a pornographic orgy with Horkheimer as the kingpin. I am kidding, of course, but Horkheimer was enough of a badass to pull that off. The astronomy show began to be broadcast nationally in 1985. He was the producer and writer of the show, sharing a common link with me since I used to produce and write TV commercials locally in Kokomo, Indiana.

My made up background of pornographic orgies isn't that farfetched. When the Internet began taking off in 1997 the show was changed to Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer because too many internet searches were returning results for the adult magazine Hustler. The show was devoted solely to naked eye astronomy. It also led to kids comic for children. Each episode focused on objects in the night sky that could be viewed with the naked eye. The website for his show can still be seen in all its geocities page-style glory.

Horkheimer's show gained him national fame. He was regularly consulted for commentaries on astronomical events and he was a science commentator for a local Miami news station. He made several appearances on CNN to narrate solar eclipses and he even hosted shows on the Cartoon Network.


Unfortunately, his continued health issued contributed to his death in August of last year. He was always prepared, as his tombstone (prepared in advance) bears the inscription: "Keep looking up was my life's admonition. I can do little else in my present position." He died on August 20, 2010 at the age of 72. He never married nor had any children. Throughout his lifetime he receive many awards:

For Mr. Horkheimer's contributions to science and life-long bachelorhood there is no question he was a badass of epic proportions. The man turned an ordinary degree into a lifelong passion for teaching and exploring his hobby of looking at the stars. That is why we honor him with today's Profile in Badassery.