Pittsburgh-area Knights build an observatory at the local VA hospital to give veterans a view of the heavens
By Cecilia Hadley
By day, hospitals bustle with noise and movement, but their atmosphere changes when the sun goes down. Lights dim, visitors go home, staff members pack up. Patients are left with their thoughts and the beeping of medical devices.
Jim Surman, a retired hospital management consultant, described the mood in grim terms: “Hospitals are like morgues at night,” said the longtime Knight, a member of St. Michael’s Council 10077 in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, and Stephen P. Barry Assembly 940 in McKeesport.
Surman began thinking about these lonely nighttime stretches in 2017, after a conversation at a gathering of health care professionals. He and Nick Haller, then the head nurse at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Pittsburgh, discussed the high rates of depression and suicide among military veterans, and Surman came away wondering if Assembly 940 could sponsor some kind of regular evening activity at the VA hospital — something to engage veterans’ minds through the dark hours.
When Surman met with a group of patients at the VA Pittsburgh H.J. Heinz campus to gauge interest in various hobbies, a clear winner emerged: astronomy. Great, he thought, the Knights can raise a few thousand dollars and buy a telescope for the patients.
Not quite. Complications came thick and fast. First, the Knights learned that any program offered at the VA must be accessible to everyone, regardless of mobility. Since many patients are unable to look through the eyepiece of a telescope, the telescope would need cameras and computers to display its images on a screen inside the hospital. Moreover, for security reasons, the telescope and the screen couldn’t communicate wirelessly. Connecting them required digging a conduit from the telescope, under a road, to a hospital building. The telescope itself is housed in a small observatory equipped with a motorized sliding roof; just getting the permit to build the shed-like structure on VA property took almost a year.
“We got quite the education in government regulations,” said Frank Conte, a member of Assembly 940 who worked closely with Surman on the project. “You can imagine that there were times when we wanted to throw up our hands.”
Surman and what he calls his “A-Team” of seven volunteer Knights from Assembly 940 persevered. They visited dozens of local K of C meetings to advertise the initiative, which they dubbed Astronomy for Disabled Veterans. Knights across western Pennsylvania gave generously, ultimately donating more than $30,000.
“Our members are so good,” Surman said. “Every time I would go back to give a status report to a council or assembly, they would write another check.”
Meanwhile, the Knights found a supportive partner: The Amateur Astronomy Association of Pittsburgh contributed about $16,000 in equipment to the program, and its members gave their time and expertise to set up the Celestron telescope, which is preprogrammed with the coordinates for hundreds of celestial objects.
After a further two-year delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the completed Sky Shed Observatory was finally dedicated Oct. 14, 2022. That night, veterans gathered both inside and out to peer into the heavens at the observatory’s inaugural “star party.”
Volunteers from AAAP and Carnegie Mellon University regularly host stargazing sessions for the veterans in a hospital gathering room, where they are also building up a library of astronomy books and magazines.
“It’s always capturing someone’s interest. Many people there really enjoy seeing the different things in the sky that I can show them,” said Rich Dollish, a AAAP volunteer. “The comet that came through a month ago — that drew a lot of interest from the patients, thinking that it’s something that won’t be seen for another 75,000 years.”
The observatory is the first of its kind at a VA hospital, but Surman hopes that others will take Astronomy for Disabled Veterans as a model. The point is not to produce an army of expert astronomers, he noted, but to serve veterans at a time when they are vulnerable.
“The whole aim is to save lives,” Surman said. “These guys made a contract with the country to give of themselves to the point of giving their own lives. We’ve got to do more for them.”
CECILIA HADLEY is senior editor of Columbia.