50 Years of Stargazing and Teaching with Gary Becker


It was a cold and windy October night. The sun had just set and autumn leaves were blowing off of the trees.

On this night an 8-year-old Gary Becker was on his way to a Cub Scouts meeting. As he walked, he was looking at the sky. At that moment a bright meteor flew overhead. Not knowing what it was, he feared the world was ending. Becker ran almost half a block to the Cub Scout house. After that night, he realized there was nothing to be afraid of and became interested in figuring out what he saw.

That night piqued his interest in astronomy, which began a journey of learning, exploring, and teaching students. 

After 50 years of teaching and almost a lifetime of learning about the stars, Becker has acquired much experience and shared many stories of his teaching career. Now, as an adjunct professor at Moravian University, Becker is impacting hundreds of students by continuing to share his love for astronomy.

Ever since spotting that meteor, Becker has had a profound love for and interest in the stars, an interest encouraged by his dad and third-grade teacher. 

“My third-grade teacher, she asked us: Does anybody know the nine planets of the solar system?” said Becker. “And so I raised my hand and went: Pluto, Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury. And then she asked me a couple of questions. I told her I had an interest and from that point on, if she did anything astronomically, she always cleared it through me.”

About a year later, his parents bought him a spyglass telescope. 

Becker’s dad was a large influence on him and although astronomy was not his particular interest, photography was and the two bonded because of that. 

“Because my dad was interested in photography, he rigged up a tripod and somehow got an attachment that could hold the telescope steady on the tripod,” said Becker. “So I went out one night and I remember there was a star in the sky and I spent forever because I didn’t have a little finder scope on my telescope, trying to find this object. After 20 minutes I finally found it, focused the telescope, and it was Saturn.”

He joined the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society at age 16  with a group of astronomy-loving friends. 

When it came time to go to college, Becker decided to study to become a teacher, like his father, but he said he was worried that if he focused on astronomy he would lose his passion for the subject. So he pursued a degree in Earth and Space Science instead. 

“I thought maybe if I went into teaching astronomy, it would be like falling out of love,” said Becker. “I thought I would lose interest in my hobby because that’s all I’d be doing. That turned out to be the opposite. It was like a godsend, and it just made life really interesting.”

Becker began working in the Allentown School District in 1972 and became Allentown’s assistant planetarium director. 

At first, teaching was more a way for Becker to spread his passion to his students. However, he didn’t know seeing his students learn and grow would become his passion.

In the classroom, Becker keeps the atmosphere lighthearted and relaxed, which he said is the best for kids to learn. He tells his students anecdotes about his travels. When the class grows far too silent for his liking he asks them whether they are good, bad, or ready to drop dead in order to make them laugh. 

“The students were not as important as my subject, and I found out within about two or three years that the students were the reason why you were teaching and the subject was sort of secondary,” said Becker. “Because I enjoyed my audiences, it was a lot of fun conveying information that I enjoyed learning.”

During his 38 years in the Allentown School District, Becker witnessed a lot of change, and he struggled to keep the planetarium open. 

“In 1993 they wanted to close the planetarium, so I fought the board of school directors six times. [Thankfully], I had public support,” said Becker. “Over 17 years I raised about $170,000 to fund the program.”

Becker was able to raise that much money because of his connections, fundraising events, and passion for the stars. 

Opportunities continued to come to Becker. In 1996 he was scouted by The Morning Call to write a weekly astronomy column, which he called Star Watch.

The column helped Becker gain more public interest and support for astronomy and stargazing in the Lehigh Valley. 

“If I had an event, I invited the public and around 200 or 300 people would show up. [After that] the board of school directors finally left me alone,” said Becker. 

Although Becker no longer publishes a weekly Star Watch in The Morning Call, he does have a page on his personal astronomy website where he posts his Star Watch for Moravian students. 

In 2010 Becker made plans to retire from teaching in Allentown after 38 years. 

Before Becker officially retired, he joined Dr. Joseph Gerencher, a former member of the Department of Physics and Earth Science at then Moravian College, on a 10-day student trip to Hawaii, where they would look at volcanoes and learn geology on sight. 

Becker went on this trip because he had been to the same site in Hawaii the previous year in order to look at a solar eclipse. 

Becker and Gerencher became close friends. After various interactions, Gerencher recommended Becker to the head of Moravian’s physics department, Dr. Kelly Krieble, suggesting Becker as his replacement, since he was retiring. 

“I got an email from Dr. Kelly Kriebel, [who wrote], ‘Have you ever thought about teaching astronomy at Moravian College?’” said Becker. “I went to Moravian for the interview and I saw my predecessor and we started talking. We talked right through my interview time. [Krieble] was standing at the door where I couldn’t see him. He  listened to Dr. Gerencher and me talk for about 15 to 20 minutes.”

That interaction got Becker hired on the spot. Becker has been teaching at Moravian since 2009. 

Becker’s current teaching assistant, Julia Shively, who is a ‘23 English major at Moravian, said Becker is her favorite professor at Moravian. 

“When we are up on the Skydeck he always shows us what the constellations are and how the stars make up these images in the sky,” said Shively. “They’re so meaningful to him. He just has such a wealth and depth of information to share.”

Even though it is currently his 50th year of teaching, Becker has no plans to retire from teaching Moravian students about his love for the stars. Currently, he is building a planetarium in his backyard because he wants to be able to experience and research the stars from his own home.