Prolific Astronomy professor retires after inspiring generations of stargazers
*This article originally appeared in The Corsair in Summer 2017.
By Becca Carlson
August will be bittersweet for the students of Pensacola State College. Although late summer will bring an opportunity to see a near solar eclipse, the sun will also set on the expansive career of PSC Professor of Physical Sciences and Astronomer extraordinaire, Dr. Wayne Wooten.
Wooten is ending a 43-year career teaching astronomy at PSC and the University of West Florida. Wooten knew there would come a day that he would no longer be able to share his passion for the universe with students. Following a recent Parkinson’s diagnosis, his body limits his endurance. However, ask most people and they’ll tell you he never stops moving. They will tell you that he devotes every particle of himself to teaching.
The magnitude of Dr. Wooten’s influence is immeasurable. Since 1974, Wooten has gifted his knowledge and enthusiasm to the students in Pensacola, often teaching generations—children and even grandchildren of former students.
Generous and knowledgeable are inadequate descriptions of Wooten. Robin Adams, PSC class of 2000 took Wooten’s astronomy class, and remembers when Wooten gave her a case and solar filter for her dad’s old binoculars she used to take to stargazes. “I think he was impressed that I took care of them.”
“He loved it! He made everybody want to love it—even the people that were sleeping in the class,” Robin said. “He’s one of my favorite teachers ever.”
Robin recalls a particularly interesting class: “He jumped up on the desk because people were asleep. So, he jumped up, and no one slept after that.” Wooten often uses his well-known astro-comedy to engage with students, in this instance exclaiming, “Let’s get Sirius.”
Robin’s daughter, Emily Adams, decided to take Wooten’s class based on her mother’s emphatic recommendation. “I liked astronomy because [my mother] had a giant telescope,” Emily said. “Every clear night she would take [my brother and me] out and let us look at it.”
Robin took Emily and her brother, Dylan Adams, to stargaze events regularly which fostered a love of astronomy at an early age. “[Dylan] knew planets before he knew other words,” Robin said. “Before he was two years old!”
Dylan is now pursuing a degree in computer science based on the influence of Dr. Wooten and his love of astronomy. “Without Dr. Wooten, I wouldn’t be there I am today,” Dylan said.
When Emily heard that Wooten was retiring, she couldn’t believe it. “I was like, thank God I’ve signed up for the class,” Emily said. “I got lucky and was able to take another class before he left.”
Emily’s husband, Nicholas Elliott, also decided to take the class because of Wooten’s zeal. “I believe the passion he has for the subject is what makes students want to come back to his class as I know it sis for me,” Elliot said.
PSC Vice President of Administrative Services, Tom Gilliam, took Wooten’s night class as an elective in 1992 even though he was pursuing a Business degree. “The first thing that struck me was that every class Dr. Wooten came in energized. Like he had just discovered the universe,” Gilliam said. “He just sort of had an infectious enthusiasm that made it interesting. He would use every class meeting and every lecture to bring out something that was in some way fascinating.”
“I think that it helped that it was a night class because when class let out, it was dark,” Gilliam said. “I can’t tell you how many times I stopped on the way to the car looking up at the sky thinking about things we just learned. It somehow makes you feel very small.”
Now, as General Counsel for PSC, Gilliam had the opportunity to thank Wooten at a recent Board meeting in February.
“I just felt strongly that when Dr. Wooten was standing there I wanted the Board to know what an asset he’d been to the college. I just thought the Board ought to know how much of a treasure he is and he will be missed.”
Gilliam’s daughter, Michelle Huddleston, also took Wooten’s class but had met him long before considering college classes.
“Dr. Wooten was always inviting and welcoming of students. He did the Escambia Amateur Astronomy Association (EAAA) and held club meetings with sky viewings on campus. I started attending those meetings [in 1992] and I had a daughter who, at that time, was just about 4 years old. I would bring her to some of the events. She was always ready to set the telescope up.”
“It’s like he caught a bug, many years ago, and he wants to do everything he can to make other people catch the same bug.”
Wooten met his wife, Merry, while she was working in the Biology department. She also was a student of his, but only after they married—and just for fun. He said her grade was a “very solid A.”
Their first date was Valentine’s Day in 1980, complete with a Lady and the Tramp-style spaghetti dinner. However, the romance started long before then. “I ended up working at the Planetarium with him, helping. And then helping more, then helping a little bit more. This was kind of the dating!”
One aging blue-jay, 20 cats, two dogs, two children and 37 years of marriage later, they have kept their love as strong as Wooten’s passion for astronomy. “He was very non-judgmental, and that’s a big thing with me.” Mrs. Wooten said. “And the fact that he liked wildlife and pet-life. That is what made a difference with me.”
Mrs. Wooten describes her husband as “fun, caring, loving and kind,” qualities that many admire about Wooten. “He’s flexible, dedicated, and open-minded,” Mrs. Wooten said. “He’ll finish the job. That’s something not a lot of people have.”
Wooten has inspired many people, but Mrs. Wooten is his biggest fan. “I think he’s very handsome,” Mrs. Wooten said. “He is the moon, the stars and everything beyond. I am Mother Earth.”
“She’s my Gaia,” Dr. Wooten concurred.
Now, students, former students and faculty say goodbye and express gratitude to this prolific instructor. Although Wooten is in the twilight of his academic teaching career, every astronomer knows that twilight is when the sky gets really interesting.
“Dr. Wooten is a true pioneer – a person who has led generations of Pensacolians to look up to the skies and wonder. He’s made us realize the extent and majesty of this universe we inhabit in a way that is both educational and inspirational. Even though he has taught us our place in the universe is small, his impact on Pensacola has been immense. They might not realize the impact in galaxies far away, but here in Pensacola his legacy will burn bright for a long. long time.” –Troy Moon, Pensacola New Journal, Class of 1986.
“I would say that he has more passion than just about any professor I have had before. And not only that, but he seems to genuinely get a childlike excitement just talking about astronomy, and I think that helps spark a lot of student’s interest and motivation. He will be missed at PSC for sure.”- Jacob Moon, Class of 2015.
“He’s like the energizer bunny when it comes to doing the Astronomy stuff.”-Ed McGowan, EAAA member and former President. Took Wooten’s class in 1997.
“He’s always looking up! He’s fast just like a shooting star, he goes, goes, goes. I will miss him.” –Kim, Wooten’s secretary for 25 years.
“His passion for astronomy is contagious. He’s unforgettable. He’s one of a kind. He’s just the best.” –Jacque Falzone, EAAA member and club Librarian. Took Wooten’s class in 1992.
“He’s very laid back. Great teacher. Loves what he does. Got me back into astronomy. He reignited that interest in astronomy and got me back out there.” –Ryan Chaveris, PSC Computer Information Systems and EAAA student chapter President. Took Wooten’s class in Fall 2016.
“I first met him when I was 16. I came up here with some early astro-photos. I showed them to him and talked to him. He was enthusiastic about the pictures. He’s a very enthusiastic person. –Rick Johnston, EAAA member first met Dr. Wooten in 1978. Joined EAAA in 1981, rejoined in 2008.
“Phenomenal person, so knowledgeable, willing to share his knowledge, so excited about astronomy, so inspiring to have someone so enthusiastic. Inspiring to have someone so willing to share his knowledge run a club, sponsor it, it takes someone dedicated like him to run it and keep it going.”-Chris Gomez, EAAA member.
“A few years ago, I got connected with [the EAAA] from a newspaper article. I was really interested in astronomy so I came to check it out. He’s been a great member of this club. He’s always finding new stuff for us to do.”-Jon Ellard, EAAA member, former President and UWF Astronomy Club Contact.
“I’ve never met someone so knowledgeable about astronomy. I’m amazed at what he knows. It’s been a lot of fun learning from him. He’s always be helpful willing to share his experiences and equipment. We’re going to miss him when he leaves, that’s for sure.”-Manuel (Manny) Galindo, EAAA member.
“I took Dr. Wooten’s astronomy class as my first elective here. He’s a brilliant teacher! Absolutely inspiring, motivating and well versed in the subject matter, for sure.”-Michael Kinsley, EAAA member and took Wooten’s class in 1997.
“He’s extremely enthusiastic and passionate about astronomy. And educating other people on astronomy in a very fun and entertaining way that doesn’t seem imposing.”-Richard Mannarino, EAAA member and President.
“Dr. Wooten is an astronomical ambassador from Pensacola. His friendly and personable demeanor invites everyone for the wonders of the stars. Thank you for making me feel welcome and good luck in retirement.”-Chris Madson, EAAA member.
“He’s energetic, he’s entertaining and he knows his stuff.” Lyen Maccabee, EAAA member.
“For as long as I can remember, he’s been the go-to guy for anything astronomy. I wonder how many people he’s touched over the years,”-Tony Giberson, PNJ photographer, PSC class of 1987.
“He’s totally engaged in trying to pass on astronomy to people of all ages. Everything he does is about trying to educate. It’s kind of amazing!” –Ron Fairbanks, EAAA member.
“Just like everyone else, I greatly admire him for being the person that he is. He’s very hands-on and personable. I don’t think there’s very many clubs in the country that are as active as this one and I think he deserves a lot of credit for that.”-Tom Riederer, EAAA Vice President.
“He knows his stuff where he can tell it to a third grader and a they would understand it. To me that’s the biggest thing. He is very exuberant; you can tell the passion is there. He’s just absolutely fabulous with this. He was instrumental in getting the Fort Pickens event going. When he retires, it’s going to be a tough loss— great guy and much respect for him.” -Dewey Barker, EAAA Education Chair, took Wooten’s class in 1982.