‘Hidden Treasures’ Follow-Up: Drexel Alumnus and Professor Remembers the University’s Astronomy Society
The spring 2019 issue of Drexel Quarterly featured a story on the “hidden treasure” that is Drexel University’s Joseph R. Lynch Observatory on the top of Curtis Hall. Drexel’s astronomy-focused student organizations and observatory were started in large part because of Leonard R. Cohen, PhD, a longtime member of the physics department and faculty mentor of the student organizations, and today the observatory holds one of Philadelphia’s largest telescopes and is used to teach classes and hold public viewing nights.
Michael H. Tunick, PhD, an assistant clinical professor in the Center for Food & Hospitality Management, read the story and reached out to say that he had been vice president of the Astronomy Society, a student organization that used the observatory, when he was a chemistry major here at Drexel before graduating in the ’70s.
In this Q&A, he talked about his memories of the observatory, which was called “Mount Apathy” when he was a student, and discussed how he ended up teaching at Drexel decades after graduating from the University.
Q: So you were a chemistry major at Drexel, right? What drew you to join the Astronomy Society?
A: When I came to Drexel, I didn’t know there was an Astronomy Society until about my pre-junior year. Back in those days, various fraternities, sororities and clubs would hang banners in the Great Court of Main Building. I saw one for the Astronomy Society and I thought, “Well, this is worth taking a look at.” I went to a meeting and Dr. Cohen was there along with a number of the students and I thought it would be worthwhile to join. So I did.
Then, because of the lack of people who wanted to do anything, I was the vice president as a junior and senior. I was in charge of the newsletter, which I would type up on a typewriter and send out once a month. It had little updates and things about what would be happening in the sky that month. The letter was on one side of a sheet of paper, and then I’d fold it and on the other side would be the address and a stamp. I’d go down to the basement of Main Building and use the Astronomy Society account to buy stamps and I would stamp them and mail them from down there.
And I did arrange for a couple of trips. There was one trip to Swarthmore College’s observatory for a public night. I’d arrange everybody to get on the train and we’d go to the observatory and I had somebody from the observatory speak to us afterwards. And there was another trip into South Jersey later on where one of the students lived in an area which was pretty dark. We just carpooled there.
Q: Did you ever use the observatory on the top of Curtis Hall?
A: The problem is that when you’re in a city, it’s hard to see a lot of things because of the glare of city lights. We did have students who used the telescope at night. There was a shack up there that had some equipment. There was some other equipment that was stored right next to Behrakis Grand Hall in a closet.
If you wanted to get into the observatory, you walked in the front entrance of Main Building, and on the right where there’s now a coffee shop used to be a guard station. You’d stop there and ask for the key and sign it out and use the key to get up to the roof to use the observatory. There was the observatory and that shack — that was our situation.
Q: In the email you sent me, you said that people used to call observatory “Mount Apathy.”
A: There were these DYMO label makers that you could use to stick labels on things, and there was a label that said “Mount Apathy Observatory” that was put on the observatory. A lot of students were kind of apathetic toward it and weren’t really interested in using it. At the time, Drexel was about half commuters, including me. Commuters couldn’t always stay late to use the observatory.
Q: How many people were in the club?
A: The mailing list had something like 30 names. Our best meetings would have 12 or 15 people. We met in MacAlister Hall. We’d reserve a room and have the meeting in one of those rooms.
Q: Were the members mostly physics majors?
A: It was all over the place. We had a lot of science majors there. But you had some non-science majors there also. It was also from freshman to senior too.
Q: Were you a member of any other clubs?
A: Russian Club as a senior. We had to take electives and I decided to take Russian as an elective. And the teacher — there was only one teaching Russian — told us that it would be a good idea to join the Russian club. I wound up being president, because there weren’t too many people in that one.
Q: Could you talk a little about Dr. Cohen? He was a member of Drexel's physics department for four decades and really championed the observatory and the astronomy student organizations, from what I could find. He was someone I really wanted to know more about, but his story was kind of lost through time because there aren’t many emeritus faculty or records here to talk about what he was like.
A: The only course I had him for was “Stellar Astronomy,” which was the second of the series of astronomy courses. I took it as a senior. I don’t have a lot of background on him. But he was interested in the society and all that. Whenever I ran up a tab for the stamps, he’d sign off on it so it’d be taken out of our account. That and talking with him about the Astronomy Society was the only real contact I had with him because he was in a different department. And the only other thing I knew about him was that he smoked a pipe!
Q: How has being an alumnus influenced how you teach at Drexel?
A: I do tell students that I was a co-op here and I was a student here, so I have an idea of what they’re going through. Sometimes, accordingly, I give them a break. That’s something that we didn’t get too much of when I was here. So, for example, I gave an exam in my class yesterday morning and one student missed it because he was injured. I’m coming in tomorrow specifically to give him an exam, and then I’m going back home.
And I do teach about the Tidewater Grain elevator explosion from 1956 that damaged some Drexel buildings. I teach food science and so grain elevators — that’s food storage. I teach my students all about how this thing blew up and what happened. The glass above the Great Court in Main Building broke and fell down, and Drexel was worried about the big chandelier there, so it was taken down. And then they lost it! Think of that as being an example of what can get lost here — it’s a gigantic chandelier! Where did it go?
Q: What were some of the best memories you have working with astronomy society, or even at Drexel?
A: For the Astronomy Society, I would just say that the camaraderie was the best. Everyone had the same interest, and that was good. And there were a lot of good memories at Drexel. A lot of it comes from working in the lab, because of course chemistry majors have to spend a lot of time in laboratories.
The reason I went to Drexel was mostly because of the co-op, and that’s still true for most of the students today. I was able to co-op at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and when I graduated, I was hired full-time there. I ended up being at the USDA for 44 years — I started there in the Nixon administration and left in the Trump administration.
Q: Can you walk me through how you came back here to teach?
A: What happened was that I was at Drexel’s Philly Chef Conference, which I had been invited to when I was still working at the USDA and I had written a book on the science of cheese. I had met Rose Trout [program director and assistant clinical professor of Drexel’s Department Culinary Arts & Food Science] before, because she had taken a class to the USDA and I had spoken to the group. At the conference, she asked if I’d be interested in teaching food chemistry . I started as an adjunct in January 2016.
And in March 2017, we had two professors leave and there’s a food microbiology lab that we couldn’t fill with an adjunct. Rose asked if I could apply for the job as an assistant clinical professor, non-tenure track. I’d long since been able to retire from USDA and so that gave me an opportunity to leave. My last day at USDA officially was Sep. 1, 2017, which was also my official first day here teaching fulltime.
Q: How has it been coming back to Drexel? What has changed?
A: Some of this stuff is familiar. A lot of the buildings are still here but some of them aren’t, like Matheson Hall, and there are new ones, like the strip of buildings on Chestnut Street. I was here after they built the Drexel Activity Center, which is now the Creese Student Center, but before Mandell Theater and MacAlister Hall went up. Everything else beyond that was open. The bookstore was behind the Main Building. There was another building that was there and that’s where the books were. People would stand in line to buy their books until some people came out, and then you could go in and buy books. The school store was on the second or third floor of Main Building.
We used to have to walk to Drexel’s field [today’s Vidas Athletic Complex] because we had to take three quarters of physical education. I took swimming in Weightman Hall at the University of Pennsylvania, because we didn’t have a physical education center back then. Physical education was in the armory. We did have tennis and golf up at the field, so I took those two courses. And Drexel doesn’t offer physical education anymore.
The Academic Building where I teach now wasn’t part of Drexel’s campus then. It was an office building.
Q: And Drexel didn’t have a culinary arts department back then, right?
A: There were nutrition and food courses in Nesbitt [the Nesbitt College of Design, Nutrition, Human Behavior, and Home Economics — which is now the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design]. I didn’t even know we had food as in any kind of “thing” when I was here. Nesbitt was totally populated with women back then, and chemistry was almost all totally men. And everybody was also American, for the most part – the campus was not terribly diverse. It’d be really novel if you had somebody from outside of the country.
In the food science graduate program now, we have a lot of students from India and some from China. My class that I’m teaching, there is an exchange student from Uruguay and there’s going to be a student in the fall from Nepal.
Q: What kinds of classes do you teach?
A: This term, it’s just “Food and the Senses” but in the fall there’s “Food Chemistry” and “Food Composition and Behavior” at night. There’s “Food Microbiology” and a food microbiology lab. And in the winter, it’s “Food Composition and Behavior” and “Food Preservation Processes” at night and “Microbial Food Safety and Sanitation.”