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Scout Hitched Wagon to Stars

By Staff | Feb 4, 2009

Greg Phillips’ fascination with astronomy as a Cub Scout bloomed into a lifelong career. (Sones Shetler)

The Boy Scout organization is marking its 99th year. Following is a testament to its positive influence on youth and a tribute to den mothers and troop leaders everywhere

by Carol Sones Shetler

It was a cold winter night during the sixties when Greg Phillips exited his Cub Scout meeting at the home of Mrs. Mineola (Niles) Houseknecht. The Hughesville den mother always escorted the boys safely to the corner and across Broad Street.

“This particular night I noticed a very bright object in the southern sky and asked, “what is that thing?”

“It’s the Mars Star,” Rick Houseknecht replied.

Greg watched all the home, wondering how anyone knew names of that stuff up in the sky. “I looked around and no other big bright objects could be found,” he said.

Filled with wonderment, Greg told parents Wilma and Hiram Phillips, and a few days later a book by Henry M. Neely appeared on his kitchen table. “It was entitled A Primer for Stargazers, a wonderful book identifying the constellations-star pictures in the sky,” he said.

From lawn mowing and snow shoveling chores, the smitten stargazer eventually saved enough money to purchase a telescope from the Montgomery Ward catalogue for $19.95. “It wasn’t the greatest piece of optical equipment, but it brought those craters on the moon in close,” he recalls.

This was about the time Greg first saw Venus go through its phases. Under the tutelage of John Reichard, Richard Smith and Robert Webster, the Hughesville High School student continued to be interested in the sciences, especially Astronomy.

“I wanted to attend Penn State to become a weatherman but lacked high level math skills. Under the advice of guidance counselor W. Hoover Raifsnider, I enrolled in the Earth and Space Science curriculum at Lock Haven State College,” Greg said. There Professor Powell noticed Greg’s keen interest in Astronomy and recruited him to work part-time in the science department. One day the professor said, “Let me show you how to run our new planetarium.” Eventually it came to the point where the student was handed keys to set up for class and assist in the evening observation labs.

In 1972, after capturing the highest GPA in all major science classes, Greg earned the senior Earth and Space Science award.

His job search led him to accept an offer teaching in the science department at Eastern Lebanon County School District in Myerstown. Greg had typed a short paragraph on the back of his resume noting his experience operating a Spitz A-4 planetarium system. This afterthought was the deciding factor in his hiring, as the school recently installed the same system in their newly constructed middle school.

A year later, an older teacher decided not to remain in the planetarium, so Greg moved up to the duty spending a total of 35 years at ELCO. He’d developed his own curriculum and created a successful elementary planetarium program youngsters visited twice annually.

During his tenure, Phillips did his bit for scouting, hosting numerous evening planetarium show for area Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Brownies and Girl Scouts. “I’d also gone to local scout camps for observation sessions with the school’s Criterion six-inch reflecting telescope. It was a joy to hear the ‘oohs and aahs’ when scouts first viewed rings around Saturn or craters on our moon,” he said.

“What a career to arise from a single question at the end of a Cub Scout meeting in Hughesville! My den mothers had no way of knowing time spent working with us might affect our lives. The projects, moral values, responsibility, story telling, Christmas gifts made for parents, etc, taught us many positive things and kept us out of trouble,” Greg said.

Den mothers cited were: Mrs. Mineola (Niles) Houseknecht; the late Mrs. Maxine (Lewis) Secules and Mrs. Margaret ‘Peg’ (Clayton) Barto. Mentioning a few fellow cub scouts Greg named Dennis Barto, Richard Houseknecht, John Montgomery, Tom Secules and Jeff Webster.

What Greg termed ‘cool’ memories included a large meeting atop the old firehouse on Water Street, now Metamorfisis gym, with Harold ‘Herb’ Criswell. The pack leader put a postage stamp on a fan blade which stopped turning when the beam of a strobe light hit it; Pine Wood derby races in the basement of the Baptist Church on Water Street; and a huge scout exposition in Williamsport where boys used squirt guns to extinguish tiny candles placed atop little wooden boats floated in a pool.

“I still catch myself looking up at planets and constellations in the night sky. In fact, we have a tradition of gathering friends and family for a ‘Star Party’ around Aug. 12 during the famous Perseid Meteor shower. Former students join us and I quiz them to see if they remember anything from Space Science class,” he said.

The couple, Greg and his wife the former Linda Sinsabaugh, are parents to Krista and Shane. Their three grandchildren can expect Grandpa Phillips to encourage hitching their wagon to stars, similar to the way Grandpa Broam encouraged Greg.