CRANDON — During the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI urged the public “to turn our gaze anew to the heavens in a spirit of wonder, contemplation and commitment to the pursuit of truth, wherever it is found.”
Frank Kovac, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Crandon, lives in that spirit of wonder every day.
“From the age of 13 on, I studied the universe,” Kovac says. “God is the creator of that universe and the majesty of it just inspires me. Who are we that God is so mindful of us?”
Kovac spent 10 years and $125,000 of his own money designing and building his own masterpiece, the largest, mechanically-operated globe planetarium ever constructed in the world. It was done in tribute to his father, also named Frank, who died in 1997, the year work began.
“My dad took the time to show me the stars and, although he has passed away, his memory will live on,” Kovac says. “Many people see the beauty of the universe and understand their place in it when they come here.”
Employed full-time at a Rhinelander paper mill, Kovac spends his free time leading tours and conducting programs, sharing his love of the stars and planets with school groups and astronomy enthusiasts of all ages.
He’s also involved in a social media campaign through gofundme.com, hoping to raise enough money to make the planetarium a self-sustaining business, which would allow him to operate the facility on a full-time basis.
“I’m not one to ask for anything,” he said. “But this place isn’t for me, it’s for others. My goal is to be able to just be here and do programs.”
From the time he was a young boy, Kovac was fascinated by astronomy. He initially built an outdoor observatory and telescope, but often found his presentations frustrated by finicky northwoods skies, which can quickly move from clear to cloudy.
Things came to a head in 1996, when clouds disrupted a presentation he had planned for a group of eager Boy Scouts.
“That’s the night my dream of having my own planetarium was born,” he says. “My desire was to share astronomy with the general public, and what better way than a planetarium?”
Instead of a modern planetarium, which uses a computerized projection system to recreate the night skies, Kovac decided to construct an old-fashioned globe version, with an interior surface that would illustrate every star visible from the Northern Hemisphere.
“Everything about this project seemed to border on insanity,” Kovac said. “When you take a 4,000-pound globe and turn it on a 45-degree angle, there are going to be problems, especially when you’re doing this in your own backyard.”
The next 10 years were a mix of small triumphs and big setbacks, fueled by Kovac’s determination, a bit of help from friends and an overriding belief in his mission.
“In my mind, it was if I were reaching for the stars,” he said. “I knew I could do it.”
He became known as the “Man Who Painted the Universe,” now the title of a book published by the Wisconsin Historical Society, after spending endless hours etching countless stars, one-by-one on the dome’s interior using glow-in-the-dark paint. Hundreds more hours involved making the dome rotate seamlessly along a metal track, and wiring the interior for lights and sounds.
The finished behemoth weighs two tons, is 22 feet in diameter, 25 feet high and seats about 30 people, eclipsing the 15-foot Atwood Globe located at the Alder Planetarium in Chicago. It includes the usual scientific accoutrements, charts and diagrams of planets and such, and one unusual item: a crucifix hung displayed prominently near the entrance.
“This completed project is really a miracle,” he says. “This is God’s handwork.”
When the planetarium opened for tours in 2008, it quickly became a favorite outing for school groups, families and individuals. Shows last one hour, but often long, depending on Kovac’s mood and the enthusiasm of the questioners. But while Kovac is an excellent presenter and has fashioned a dramatic mix of music, light and information, the planetarium remains the focal point, rotating slowly counterclockwise. It creaks a bit like a wooden roller coaster as it travels around the track, moving from sunset to sunrise, portraying any celestial season the viewer chooses.
By the time the audience leaves, they share a glimpse of what motivated Kovac so many years ago to begin his dream, and see it through.
“This shows that evolution and science are so wonderfully combined,” Kovac says. “God is not a magician. He is a creator and I’m showing the majesty of his work. It’s a channel to the universe.”
Kovac Planetarium will reopen, after winter maintenance, in April. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens and $8 for children, with special rates available for groups. For more information, visit kovacplanetarium.com, or call (715) 487-4411.