Mike Ford to be inducted into Chamber Hall of Fame
Mike Ford’s love of astronomy began as a child in the 1950s, when he would watch science fiction programs and movies on television.
“It just got my curiosity aroused about the real stories behind some of these things,” said Ford, a former Holton High School teacher and one of this year’s Holton/Jackson County Chamber of Commerce inductees.
It could be said that step by step, that curiosity led to the creation of the Banner Creek Science Center and Observatory west of Holton, where people of all ages with similar levels of curiosity can get a better look into the stars. But while the science center’s creation cannot be credited solely to Ford, it was his work that led to its formation.
His love of astronomy growing from the seed planted by those “goofy” sci-fi shows on TV, Ford told his grandmother that he wanted a telescope for Christmas one year. His first telescope was “a little 2 1/2-inch refractor on a flimsy mount,” and he held onto it for several years until he could afford a nicer one.
“My interest just increased, and I started reading more books, star charts and maps,” he said. “It kept snowballing and snowballing. My interest has just been peaking ever since that time.”
Ford also remembers the day that man first landed on the moon — July 20, 1969, his 15th birthday. While at a drive-in theater, a bulletin flashed across the screen stating that Neil Armstrong had set foot on the moon.
“It was kind of nice because they weren’t supposed to land until the next day, but things were going so well that they decided to land a day early. I just thought that was a really cool birthday present right there,” he said.
After graduating in 1972 from Seaman High School, Ford set out to become an astronomer, but “without all the physics and mathematics” courses necessary for that degree. Instead, he majored in communications, interned at Topeka TV station KTSB (now KSNT) with weekend anchor Mary Loftus and joined the Kansas Army National Guard, where he worked as a public affairs officer.
It was during this time when Ford met his future wife, Karen, through a friend who worked as a secretary at Washburn University’s astronomy and physics office. He and Karen dated for “about four years” before marrying in 1980.
“She finally got smart and decided she couldn’t live without me,” he joked. “She was hard to get.”
It was Karen who encouraged him to look into a career in teaching, and at that time, Holton school board member Judy Norris seconded that encouragement. Norris, who was in the teacher education section at Washburn, evaluated Ford’s transcript and came to the conclusion that Ford could teach just about anything.
“I took an entire year, with a newborn and my wife working, and I took 12 hours in the summer, 26 hours in the fall and 28 in the spring,” Ford said of his college coursework. “I was also working at Wolfe’s Camera Shop, and I was still in the Guard. So I was busy. But I made it through and got certified.”
Ford’s first teaching job began in August of 1986, when he taught science and English at Holton Middle School. Six years later, he made the jump to Holton High School, where he was in charge of the television production class.
But it was in his middle school teaching years where he had the opportunity to encourage his students, their parents and others to get involved in astronomy. At one point, he sent a letter home with his students, letting parents know that he was hosting “an observing session, looking at planets and objects in space,” and inviting them to join him in some star-gazing.
“I thought I might have 15 — maybe 20 — show up,” he said. “I had more than 100.”
The interest from students and parents alike encouraged Ford to host a few more “observing sessions” over the years, and in 2000 — the same year that Ford received a master of science degree in geosciences from Mississippi State University — that interest culminated in the construction of the Elk Creek Observatory, touted as “the only high school-owned observatory in the world.”
The observatory, located north of HHS, included a a 14-inch telescope, robotic mount, fiberglass dome and CCD camera, all funded by a grant that he and Karen wrote. Three years later, in 2003, the observatory upgraded to a 16-inch telescope, and in 2004, it received a new dome and a 20-inch telescope.
Over time, and under Ford’s guidance, the observatory earned attention — and respect — from national astronomy programs and from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). But despite all the accolades, Ford noted it remained a “rustic” facility.
“When we were down to a 20-foot-by-20-foot facility, there was no heat,” he said. “Or it would be hot in there — more than 100 degrees. But the kids would still want to go down there and work… We’d have mosquitoes and other bugs. You name it, we had it. But the kids wanted to be there.”
Ford resigned his teaching position at HHS in 2008 to run for a position on the USD 336 Board of Education — he is currently in the middle of his second term — because “we had issues at the district level that needed to be solved, that weren’t getting solved.” However, he didn’t stop teaching, taking on a position as a teacher at the Kickapoo Nation School in Powhattan.
It was also time to look for a new home for the observatory, with Ford citing “light issues” and being in a valley as the main reasons.
“The school board at that time had talked about expanding the amount of lights at the high school for security,” he said. “I tried to explain to them that lights do not shine down, but they shine up. So with that in mind I went to the board and asked if we could move the scope out, and they said yes, as long as it doesn’t cost any money.”
With some help from then-Jackson County Commissioner Lois Pelton, Ford was able to pinpoint a spot of land at the intersection of 222nd and N roads that weren’t affected by nearby lights. He put together a proposal and took it to HHS alumnus Bill Zirger, and they helped assemble a non-profit organization to help raise funds for the construction of what would eventually become the Banner Creek Science Center and Observatory.
“This has not been just a one-person project,” he says of the science center.
Ford now volunteers his time as the observatory and education director at the new science center, and is now teaching full-time at Horton High School. But he remains connected to the Holton school district, helping to promote a bond issue for the construction of a new elementary school — a bond issue that passed after two similar bond issues for a new school failed.
“I knew we needed a bigger facility, because we’re growing,” he said of the new elementary school, set to begin construction next year. “There were issues with the other two bond issues, but those were while I was teaching. I’m glad we got this one done because we went after what the community wanted, and we got what was needed for the teachers and the staff to do their jobs.”
Concerning his Chamber Hall of Fame honor, Ford said he was “surprised” to be recognized, not just for his promotion of astronomy and planting the seeds that would grow into Banner Creek Science Center, but for his work with students in the Holton district. But he remains dedicated to doing his part to make the science center a draw for the region.
“The only reason I do the astronomy is because I love doing it,” he said. “It’s for the students and the community. And we’ve had a lot of great things happen out here.”