At 84 years young, Howard Sims is living his dream observing the night sky in the small town of Comer, Georgia. It’s a dream and passion he’s carried since his childhood.
“I didn’t have a clue on what was going on up there,” Sims said when recollecting his days as a young boy star-gazing into the mysterious night sky.
The idea of space, stars and whatever else existed above remained a mystery to Sims until he made his way to Chicago, where he visited a cousin who took him to the Adler Planetarium – a museum dedicated to the study of astronomy and astrophysics.
From that point on, Sims said he would visit the planetarium quite frequently. He listened to lectures and absorbed all he could about the stars and beyond.
It was years later when Sims discovered the basement of the planetarium, but it was what was going on in those four walls that really got his attention.
“They were grinding their own mirrors to build their own telescopes,” Sims said. “So, I asked questions about how I could go about grinding my own mirrors to build me a telescope.”
Sims was told to buy the 1947 publication "Making Your Own Telescope" by Allyn J. Thompson, a book commonly used by amateur astronomers to learn in-depth about the telescope, the different components and how to make your own.
“They told me to read over the first six chapters twice, understand what I read, and they would let me come into the optics shop in the basement of the planetarium under the park district supervision,” Sims said.
It didn’t cost Sims anything to join the basement crew, but he did have to purchase his own kit to build his telescope, he said. Sims remembers the kit set him back around $20, which would equal nearly $168 dollars in today’s currency. It was a steep purchase for Sims, but he made it happen.
“If it’s something you really want, you’ll save for it,” he said.
In no time Sims had his first telescope. He was then invited to travel west with the people from the optic shop where they visited an observatory, which sparked his next dream: building his very own observatory.
But Sims didn’t want to build his observatory right away, he wanted to hold onto that dream until he could return home to the South and retire. In the meantime, he held onto his telescope and drew blueprints of the observatory he would later create.
“My first telescope was such a success, until I wanted to see farther,” Sims said. “So, 12 years later, I bought myself a bigger kit.”
Sims began grinding his own mirrors yet again under park district supervision and built his first 12.5 inch telescope weighing in at over 300 pounds.
“I kept that telescope on wheels until I could move down south and build my observatory,” he said. “Then, I took the wheels off of it and put it on a pole in the center of my observatory and that’s where it is today.”
According to Sims, his hands-on jobs and desire to create has left him with the skill of being able to build whatever he wanted - a skill that fed his curiosity and allowed him to see and learn more about the things surrounding Mother Earth.
On a clear night, Sims can show you the many different constellations, the Milky Way, Saturn’s rings and details of his favorite thing to look at - the moon.
“You can see a whole row of mountains on the moon, the craters on the moon and I can bring the moon so close it looks like it’s hanging over your head,” Sims said. “But when I have people looking at Saturn, they don’t want to let go of the telescope to let someone else look, because they never dreamed of being able to see it.”
As an amateur astronomer, Sims is completely self-taught. Everything he knows came from books, magazines, museums and science programs, he said. But the depth of his knowledge is enough to impress people from the highest level of science agencies.
“I’ve had people from NASA come by who were impressed by my observatory,” Sims said. “When one man returned to his headquarters, he sent me a whole bag of literature from his office,” he said.
At 84, Sims has thought about the future of his observatory. No one in his family has taken the time to learn how to operate his telescope or his observatory, so he expects his three children will sell his property one day.
“If they sell the house and everything I got, then each one of them will have the chance to get something out of it while they’re still living – if they outlive me, because I’m going to live to be 95,” Sims said.
So, while Sims sees himself sticking around much longer, his intentions are to use that time to continue sharing his knowledge and experience with anyone willing to learn.
“I’m willing to share everything I know about the galaxies, planets and universe with other people.” Sims, said. “Anytime somebody comes out there to want to see the telescope, as long as they’re enjoying it, I’m having myself a ball.”
For a chance to see the night sky in a way you may never have, schedule a visit to the Howard Sims Observatory at 706-788-3279.
Everyday People is a periodic feature highlighting unique locals with a story to tell. If you or someone you know has an interesting story, there may be a chance to be featured in our series. For inquiries, send us an email.