Francis Malcolm never entered the building that bears his name in his hometown of Easton, but the vision it represents makes him familiar to thousands of people he never knew. He would be saddened to know that the future of his legacy is at risk.
Founded in 1983 with an endowment established by Malcolm’s will, the Francis Malcolm Science Center (Francis Malcolm Institute) now welcomes children whose parents visited the center when they were children. They come to learn about nature and astronomy. They explore the breadth of the universe, from tiny organisms to vast galaxies. They experience their natural surroundings as Malcolm did.
“They’re here to play science and engage the senses,” said Larry Berz, educator and planetarium director during a recent tour. “It’s the most exciting educational resource in Aroostook County. There’s nothing like it.”
Through the science center, Francis Malcolm has touched the lives of countless people in the region of Maine that he never forgot during his extensive career in education. Malcom was born in 1894, graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the former Ricker College in Houlton and a master’s from Cornell University in Ithica, N.Y., plus completed some graduate study at Columbia University in New York City. He was a superintendent of schools in Vermont and an educational administrator in Alaska until he retired and settled in California, where his investments in real estate generated the basis for the legacy he willed to the people of Aroostook County when he died in 1977.
But after 30 years, income from the endowment, now supplemented by private donations, is insufficient to keep the center operating. A $1.5 million capital campaign is the first step toward ensuring its future.
“There are people whose lives have been altered by that center,” said Phil Christensen of Fort Fairfield, expressing hope they might come to its aid.
Francis Malcolm loved nature and provided for creation of the center so generations of Aroostook County residents could share his appreciation of the natural world. He gave his 400-acre family farm as well as funds to construct the center. Summer and winter, visitors hike and snowshoe miles of wooded trails.
Inside, they study the night sky and life beyond earth in a darkened planetarium where more than a dozen projectors and two dozen special effects recreate the wonders of the universe. New England’s northernmost star theater, the planetarium incorporates a 24-foot dome with a Spitz 373 Nova Star Projector for a variety of programs offered to school groups and the general public.
“For many children, that is the only planetarium they will ever be inside of. I hope it will be there for years to come,” Christensen said.
In the lobby, visitors can examine aquatic life, specimens of native Maine animals and a butterfly garden — a tent where butterfly pupae adhere to and hatch upon the upper surface, then enjoy butterfly-friendly plants and atmosphere. More than 6,000 people pass through the center in a year, most of them school children, but also local clubs, senior citizen groups and businesses.
“We create memories,” said Berz. “We’re planting seeds of dreams for kids.”
Even though Berz calls the planetarium “a jewel in the crown of Maine,” in an age of digital media, the theatre technology is out of date. The building needs a new roof, new displays, new lighting, and expanded learning areas, in addition to operating expenses.
“Without $1.5 million in donations,” declares a postcard appealing for funds, “the science center that has served students, local schools, home-schooled students, individuals with disabilities, civic organizations, scout groups and YOU for over 30 years will be forced to close in less than two years.”
The Fort Fairfield Quality of Place Council endorsed the appeal in a May 15 letter to the Bangor Daily News. “We are so fortunate to have the Francis Malcolm Science Center in our area,” wrote Brent Churchill, chair, and Phil Christensen, vice chair. “More than 100,000 of our school children have learned about insects, bones, animal species, and our own nervous and respiratory systems by participating in programs at the center,” they said, urging donations from those who can contribute.
The mission and impact of the science center was clear to members of a local group as they settled into their seats in the planetarium and gazed at the star-studded dome during the recent tour. In Aroostook County, with its uninterrupted view of the heavens, it is hard to imagine that people living in cities may never see the stars because of the bright glow of the city lights. The Francis Malcolm Science Center is engaged in “battle against light pollution invading our contact with the sky,” Berz said, as he began the evening program. “Our scientific curiosity needs stirring. Beauty — sublime beauty — never ceases to amaze.”
Noting the insignificance of political boundaries when viewing the sky, he suggested that “to return to our planetary position may be the only thing that will save us. The sky is the window to go through.”
For more information, visit www.francismalcolmsciencecenter.com.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.