Longtime Planetarian to Give One Last Star Show
Managing Director, Planetarian John Wharton Set to Retire after 30 Years at the Saint Louis Science Center
Above the excitement and commotion happening on the grounds of the Saint Louis Science Center, there is a small, almost hidden room. After one step inside, you can’t help but notice old blueprints of building designs and archival documents about past exhibits all properly organized into boxes.
At first glance, this room could be mistaken for a simple storage closet. However, in many ways this office resembles a miniature collections exhibit filled with rich and irreplaceable museum history all kept by one unforgettable man, John Wharton, the current Managing Director of Facility Operations at the Science Center. However, after three decades of incredible work at the Science Center, John Wharton will be retiring tomorrow, July 28th.
Throughout John’s career, he molded the Science Center into what we know and love today: a place for all ages to ignite and sustain life-long science and technology learning. He has simultaneously focused on his personal goals of being a committed educator and community impactor. Visitors who’ve left the museum ingrained with a sense of wonder and curiosity about our world can accredit much of their experience to him.
John Wharton’s story begins in Indiana where he grew up, and became a journalism graduate from Butler University, but he choose to pursue his true passion of astronomy.
“The very first class I took at Butler was an astronomy class. And the professor on the first day said, ‘anyone interested in a part time job?’ And I jumped at the chance. And during that part time gig, I got really into planetarium shows and telescope work,” Wharton said.
He worked this gig throughout his time at Butler University learning the basics about planetarium work. Fittingly, the day after he graduated John got his first museum job in Evansville, IN, and he hasn’t looked back.
“My last day at the Science Center will be 40 years to the day after I got my first museum job,” Wharton said.
His journey in the astronomy realm led him from his home state of Indiana to Oklahoma City, and eventually becoming planetarium director at the former Museum of Science and Natural History in Saint Louis. He was drawn to the museum because of its large aspirations to expand the location to cater to education, youth development and exploration.
Lest we forget, the main draw for Wharton was the Planetarium and it’s capabilities as a unique educational environment. John’s arrival coincided with the James. S McDonnell Planetarium upgrading its light show technology.
“We were one of the first planetariums to have a digital projector because before we were dealing with these glorified flash lights. Instead, we ended up with something called Digistar, which is basically a glorified video projector, one of the first 3D graphic projectors ever made.” Wharton explained.
The high-tech projector aided the Planetarium staff to produce four shows with a soundtrack under John’s reign as director. During this time, a memorable production was created called “The Little Star That Could” and it is still shown at the James. S McDonnell Planetarium and around the world. John said there are about 300 Planetarium’s that still show it to this day.
After 8 years at the Planetarium, John wanted to shake things up and challenge himself further. He turned to museum management. He moved from leading visitor services and programming management to OMNIMAX® theater management in a few years span.
Then 17 years ago, he began working in operations management. John brought experience and a deep understanding of the organization’s goals to the staff, making him a perfect choice for the job. He had firsthand experience in effectively executing the development of the museum.
John’s been involved in nearly every aspect of the Science Center’ development, but one of his fondest memories was setting up a special exhibit featuring race cars. This exhibit was created to pair with the OMNIMAX® film Super Speedway. John’s always had an admiration for race cars and the dynamics around racing itself.
John reached out to other car enthusiasts in the St. Louis community, requesting that they display their vehicles at the Science Center. This outreach, uncovered a large community of car collector’s right under his nose. With their help and John’s leadership, a complete and complementary exhibit was successfully created. He will freely admit that he was working outside of his comfort-zone, and was pleasantly surprised to see it become a success.
This race car preparation and execution, amongst a multitude of other completed tasks, centers on a common commitment to the goals of the Science Center. His influence is noted by the Science Centers President and CEO Bert Vescolani.
“John’s been one of these guys that has impacted so much at the Science Center because he’s been a part of so many projects of scale,” Said Vescolani. “He’s the guy you count on.”
Staff understood this, but John’s foremost loyalty was to the visitors. Wharton’s dedication to the visitor experience has driven him throughout the years.
“You hope that people walk away with the spark to want to learn more to do more or follow up more. I guess that’s the thing that’s been fueling me this whole time. The chance that you can make a difference,” Wharton said.
The impact that John has helped foster is noted amongst the employees of the Science Center, specifically the current Planetarium Manager Anna Green. When Anna was around 4 years old her family traveled to St. Louis and paid a visit to the Planetarium. During this trip, Anna saw a Planetarium show that transformed her future.
This show paved a path towards her focus in museum studies, specifically in astronomy. The show was “The Little Star That Could,” the same one John ran when he was the director of the Planetarium. As John reflects on this story with a beaming smile and sentimental eyes, it becomes apparent to anyone listening that his work, or more appropriately his legacy, is held dear to his heart. It confirms his career impacted people’s lives. Along the same note, Anna shared that John became a mentor to her. Their intertwined story left Anna with a goal that would make John proud.
“If I can reach one child the way John Wharton was able to affect me, then I’ve done my job,” Green said.
John Wharton’s last day at the museum will consist of a final Planetarium show conducted by John, himself. The showing is tomorrow, Friday 28th at 3:30 pm Whether or not he wears his legendary starry disco shirt and bell bottom jeans is something you’ll have to witness for yourself. Best of luck and congratulations, John.
By Maggie Crist & Artis Curiskis, Marketing Interns