In 1983, my husband and I attended our first regular astronomy club meeting. The speakers for the evening were Norm Oberle and Al Panzer, the subject was a perennial one: refractors vs. reflectors. It was the first time we met Norm and a lecture neither of us ever forgot. Although we didn't know it then, Norm Oberle was already an Ohio amateur astronomer's legend. For many years, Norm taught area amateurs to grind their own mirrors and built their own telescopes. It was through Norm's classes that I made my own two telescope mirrors described elsewhere on this site. I learned most of what I know about mirror-making due to Norm's efforts as a teacher. Norm's love for the night sky and desire to build bigger and better instruments was a life-long preoccupation.
Norm’s fascination with the night sky began with a planetarium show he saw around the age of twelve. Soon he made his first first telescope. It was a small refractor, but it stirred up a big interest in Norm. In the mid-50’s, Norm went to the telescope-making class at Cleveland Natural History on Euclid Ave. He enjoyed it so much that he became one of the instructors. In 1958, the Museum moved to University Circle and Norm later began teaching mirror-making at the Schuele Planetarium were the Lake Erie Astronomical Society held its meeting.
Norm Oberle inspired many Ohio amateurs to make their own telescope mirrors. Norm was one of the charter members and organizers of Cuyahoga Astronomy Club and its first president. [Later to become Cuyahoga Astronomical Association] In the mid-60’s, Norm built two 12.5” telescopes, one a Newtonian, the other a Classical Cassagrain. These were mounted on a trailer and Norm hauled them all over the state of Ohio to OTAA star parties. They were called Paul Bunyan’s binoculars, although they were never used as binoculars, one was set up for photography, the other one Norm used for viewing.
In 1968, Norm formed the LEAP Project (Lake Erie Astronomical Project) partially an out growth of the telescope making class and astronomy meetings at the planetarium. Norm bought a farm on New London Eastern Road, and LEAP had a 4-acre site out of Norm’s purchase. It was a very dark site, and members built a 30-foot building. LEAP was donated mirror blanks of 31“ and 44” fused quartz from General Electric. These were test blanks for Mayall Solar Telescope at Kitt Peak. A mirror-grinding machine was assembled at LEAP site where Norm and Jim Thomas worked on the 31-inch telescope blank.
Unfortunately land near to the LEAP site was sold and the new owner erected night lights that virtually destroyed the local area for astronomical viewing. The LEAP site was donated to Black River School district.
Norm bought a new house on Bennett Road in North Royalton where he built an observatory to house his twin telescopes. From this site, Norm was able to observe regularly. The complete 31” mirror was mounted in a sonotube and set up in Norm’s front yard where many local amateurs visited and were able to observe through this monster telescope.
Paul Leopold reported: “In the early 70’s, on the way back from an astronomy convention, Doug Wereb and I were invited to Norm’s to look through the telescope. We had the privilege of climbing a 30-foot step ladder. It was an unnerving climb, but it was worth it. We observed M-13 and the field of view exploded with stars! Swaying in the breeze, the view was spectacular.”
Through Doug Wereb, Norm met members of the Richland Astronomical Society who were building an astronomical observatory with the help of an endowment from one of their members, Warren Rupp. The 31” mirror became the instrument at the Warren Rupp Observatory at Hidden Hollow. (Follow this link for a reprint of the article from a back issue of The Asteroid Belt, the story of the 31" telescope.)
Norm held mirror-making classes in North Royalton on and off during the 1980’s. He repaired optical equipment for optometrists and ophthalmologists from a mobile unit, traveling throughout Northern Ohio. Norm attributed his happiness to God and help from his wife, Sandy, who did much for him. He was noted for his willingness to help others and his patience with them when them while they benefited from his astronomical knowledge. Norm’s last telescope was a 25” mirror which he mounted on the twin 12” telescope mount. Norm enjoyed solar observing and making videos from his home observatory, but he became interested in finding a new place for his telescope at a darker site.
It is with great sorrow, I report that Norm lost his battle with cancer on February 14, 1996 at age 57. He will be sorely missed by amateurs and telescope makers of Ohio. A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 1996 edition of The Asteroid Belt. It was written by Dawn Jenkins with the help of members of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association and some of Norm's students and friends. It is copywrite ©1996, by Dawn Jenkins.
Also see "The Legacy of the 31" Telescope" on this site. Please send any comments or questions to Astra's Contact Page
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