Gift from Area Stargazer John Turnbull, ‘Fits a Niche’ at Monmouth College


Monmouth resident John Turnbull is “Sirius” about stargazing.

So serious, in fact, that he’s owned several telescopes through the years. That includes an 11-inch Celestron telescope that Monmouth College recently received from Turnbull as a gift-in-kind.

Monmouth physics professor Michael Solontoi is thrilled with the acquisition.

“This fits a niche we didn’t have before,” he said. “Eleven- and 12-inch telescopes are the biggest you can get that are still portable. This telescope is very, very portable, and it complements our ability to do outreach astronomy. It also allows for ease of use. If we want to look up at something cool in the sky, we don’t have to take a half-hour to set up the telescope on the roof.”

Solontoi was referring to the 20-inch Trubeck Telescope in the Adolphson Observatory atop the Center for Science and Business, which will be receiving an update later this summer in the form of new mounts.

The donated 11-inch model is what Turnbull called a “go-to” telescope.

“You type in a number or a constellation, and it will turn and go to it and get it in the field,” said Turnbull, who is director of Monmouth’s Turnbull Funeral Home. “That will be very helpful for students.”

Or, as Solontoi said: “It’s completely computer-controlled. You aim it, tell it where to point, and it points at it.”

The official name for the gift is a Celestron CPC 1100 GPS (Schmidt-Cassegrin) Telescope 11075-XLT, including six powers of eye pieces, a Barlow lens, seven filters including a moon filter, a finder scope, a 110 power cord, a heavy duty tripod and a scope dolly.

“It’s three pieces, and the pieces weigh about 45-50 pounds, so I hadn’t been using it in the past few years,” said Turnbull. “I wanted to try to find a home for such a nice instrument.”

By chance, Turnbull had already met Solontoi’s father, who assured him his son would be excited about acquiring the telescope, and that was definitely the case.

A lifelong hobby

Turnbull said he’s been hooked on astronomy ever since his mother, Ruth Turnbull, got him started in his youth. Ruth was a seventh-grade science teacher at Central Junior High School, just a couple blocks down East Second Avenue from the funeral home.

“There was a six-inch metal reflection telescope in the closet at the school, and she picked up the pieces, straightened out the tube and got it up on a tripod,” said Turnbull. “She set it up in our south driveway here, and we got Saturn in it. She got me really hot on that, and I’ve loved looking at constellations, galaxies and nebulae ever since.”

Two of Turnbull’s favorite objects to find in the night sky are the Horsehead Nebula in the sword of the constellation Orion and the Veil Nebula in the constellation Cygnus. His go-to location for seeing such sights is an area near Rozetta, which is far enough away from Monmouth, Burlington and the Quad Cities to combat the ever-increasing issue of light pollution.

“Sometimes, the coyotes sound like they’re right behind me,” he said. “One night, the conditions were perfect, and I got all of the Veil Nebula in my view. … I’m a stargazer, not an astronomer. Mike is the astronomer, doing research. I just like to go out and find neat stuff. I don’t have to write a book about it or take a test.”

But he does use a book, and he pulled out an edition of Collins Atlas of the Night Sky, with several pages bookmarked and others with constellations drawn by his own hand.

“Space is so big and so vast,” he said. “If you’re starring, you need something like this book. It’s important, so you know where you’re at.”

Once a person has a nice telescope, or at least has access to one, it’s a hobby that, quite literally, is out of this world.

“It’s free, it’s live and you don’t need electricity,” said Turnbull. “You get an appreciation for how small we are compared to everything that’s out there. A lot of people just take space for granted. But fortunately for me, I had a mother who put those things out there for me.”

***Courtesy of Duane Bonifer, Monmouth College***

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