Bradenton's most famous star traveler took a back door into the cosmos

Jeff Rodgers, director of Bradenton's Bishop Planetarium, was set for a law career

mclear@bradenton.comNovember 24, 2013 

He was on the road to law school, but he ended up leading guided tours to the edges of the universe.

In between, there were disappointing stops in inner-city high schools and a stint as a luggage maker.

Jeff Rodgers is the director of education for the South Florida Museum. He's also the director of the museum's Bishop Planetarium.

He's the guy who conducts the planetariums star talks, and who mans the control panel that takes visitors on a virtual trip through the solar system and out past the Milky Way. He gets help, these days, from a spectacular new computer and projection system that makes the Bishop Planetarium the technological rival of any in the world.

He used to hang out with Neil deGrasse Tyson, perhaps the world's most famous astrophysicist, and he can talk about the wonders and the science of the cosmos with the same authority as professor of astronomy.

But in his college career he studied history and political science.

"I was heading to law school," Rodgers said. "But I didn't make it."

After the Queens, N.Y., native graduated from Wake Forest University, he decided to put off law school for a while. He took a job teaching at a high-quality but low-income high school in Harlem.

"You're 21 years old, you're idealistic, you think you can make a difference," he said. "But that experience opened my eyes to lot of things. It was definitely a challenging situation."

The regulation and the bureaucracy involved in public education made real teaching all but impossible, he said. He tried teaching at another New York City school that took a superficially experimental approach. But that school turned out to be just as stifling.

Some friends had a factory in upstate New York and offered him a job cutting fabric. He was done with teaching and a 9-to-5 job had some appeal.

"They asked me and I said, 'I can do that,'" he said. "I thought I would probably still go to law school but I was in hurry."

He was contentedly making suitcases when, out of the blue, he got a call from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The museum was looking for someone who could talk to its various scientists and translate what they said into everyday terms for presentations and exhibitions. One of his education colleagues had recommended him.

He had grown up in Queens, and new the American Museum of Natural History well.

"I grew up going to that museum," he said. "I love that place."

He accepted the job offer with no hesitation.

"My strength was my ignorance,' he said. "I could keep saying 'I still don't understand this. Explain it to me again.'"

Part of the museum was the Hayden Planetarium, which Tyson runs. Rodgers works with him, and on the now-famous display of the solar system in which Tyson decided not to include Pluto.

It was that museum's combination of such diverse fields as natural history and astronomy that ignited Rodgers' love of science.

"It was like an epiphany," he said. "What we tend to think of as different disciplines are all connected. They are symbiotic. It was a way to understand the world we live in."

He came to Bradenton in 2004, at a time when the planetarium was closed, still under reconstruction after a fire. Rodgers was to be the museum's director if education. Someone else was going to run the planetarium when it opened.

"It turned out that individual wasn't comfortable with the technology," Rodgers said. "It was a digital system and he was used to the more traditional planetarium. So they said 'Jeff, do this' and I've been doing it ever since."

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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