Chautauqua Preservation Society board and community members gathered for a special event Friday evening to celebrate more than 100 years of history and the birthday of the historic auditorium in Getzendaner Park.  

“Two years ago, state Rep. John Wray signed a proclamation designating July 26 as Waxahachie Chautauqua Day,” board president Kirk Hunter told the large crowd attending the celebration, which included an astronomy program.

Dozens were on hand to share in the celebration of the Chautauqua Auditorium’s storied history and, as homage to the educational purpose behind the Chautauqua Movement, which saw its inception in the late 19th century, to hear the guest speakers. 

“It was on the day, July 26, in 1900, a group gathered in a tent on the grounds,” Hunter said of the beginnings of the Waxahachie Chautauqua. “From that meeting, they met with county officials and, two years later, in 1902, the Chautauqua was built.”

“It is hard to imagine a group meeting in a tent on these grounds for a meeting in this Texas July heat,” program chair Maureen Moore said, noting the first birthday celebration was held in 2017 upon the signing of House Bill 1254, which designates July 26 as Waxahachie Chautauqua Day.

Hunter shared the auditorium’s history, including its many uses over the years and the restoration efforts that have been made with the structure, the only one of its kind to still exist in the state of Texas. 

Following Hunter’s remarks, a birthday cake prepared in the image of the Chautauqua Auditorium by Kim Bauman of Pettigrew Academy was cut and shared by attendees.

The evening’s celebration continued with the evening’s program, “Could Anyone Else Be Out There? Searching for Exoplanets is Alive and Well in Texas,” by Dr. Richard Olenick, professor of physics, and Arthur Sweeney, an adjunct professor in physics, both of whom serve at the University of Dallas and who have an extensive interest in planet and solar system research.

Beginning with the history of cosmology, Olenick described how early explorers observed the skies and set the foundations for today’s research, with the continuing question through the years of are there any planets or systems out there that have life?

Discussing the question of why we look for planets outside of our universe, the presentation continued on to other questions ranging from what is a planet to how many stars and planets are out there to how do we hunt for exoplanets to what type of stars and planets have been found to date.

The two academics shared how, up until now, the only place to observe and find exoplanets has been the observatory in Fort Stockton, Texas, in what is the state’s darkest area. 

“We began looking for another dark area where we could set up an observatory,” Sweeney said. “Using a scientific map of the state, an area just out of Throckmorton was located. Soon a new observatory will be built there that will be more accessible to scientists in this area. 

“Also, instead of spending long nights huddled over e telescope, we now have computer data that we can access over the internet to track new stars and solar systems to determine their size and composition,” he said.

In concluding the presentation, Olenick said that complex life being found elsewhere across the heavens “may be possible in only 10-percent of all galaxies.” 

“The strongest evidence for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is they haven’t contacted us yet,” he said with a smile.

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