Despite his lifetime bout with a chronic illness, Jack Horkheimer refuses to do anything but "keep lookin' up."
On first glance, Jack Horkheimer's enthusiasm seems overwhelming. During a typical episode of his PBS program, Star Gazer, Horkheimer dances across the solar system and spouts fun facts about the night sky with the passion of an uncle telling stories of his glory days as a high school quarterback. Horkheimer's on-camera persona belies a lifetime of health problems. In fact, his bout with a congenital lung disease led to his fascination with the night sky.
Illness and transfiguration
Horkheimer has waged a fierce battle during most of his life with what doctors originally thought was severe asthma. "I have a congenital disease called bronchiectasis that I've had all my life," he says. "I really survive on a cocktail of bizarre medications and treatments."
The disease runs in his father's side of the family and took two of Horkheimer's aunts before they reached 40. Bronchiectasis shares many symptoms of cystic fibrosis, including recurring pneumonia and lung infections, and requires constant medical treatment, which Horkheimer has managed to keep secret for much of his adult life. "I kept my illness a great secret for many years, even when I was here at the Miami Space Transit Planetarium, because I didn't want people to treat me differently."
On several occasions, Horkheimer's health has taken a turn for the worse. "I've always managed to race slightly ahead of the Grim Reaper," says Horkheimer. "Just about the time they'd take me to the hospital and I'd be on my deathbed, they'd find some new treatment that had just come out and Bang! it would bring me back."
During his last year in graduate school at Purdue University, Horkheimer's condition turned dire. His doctors recommended surgery to remove portions of both lungs, but Horkheimer couldn't find a surgeon who was willing to do it; they all cited the extreme risk. With no other choice, Horkheimer's doctors insisted he move to a location where the humidity was high and the temperature was warm at night.
Horkheimer contemplated his next move. While on his apartment balcony at Purdue late one night, he had what he calls a "transfiguring moment." Through the open veranda door he heard the TV, which was just about to go off air, and a local rabbi giving the spiritual thought of the day. The message was about how prayer isn't about asking for things from God as much as it is about standing in awe of everything that exists. "In an instant, the stars were no longer pinpoints of light but were actually globes of different sizes, colors, and intensities scattered throughout an infinity of space, coupled with an infinity of time, coupled with my place in the scheme of everything," says Horkheimer.
He chose to move to Miami and dedicate whatever life he had left to sharing what he had learned during that numinous instant. "I was on borrowed time to begin with," says Horkheimer. "When I came to Miami, I believed that I maybe had 5 years left to live. I never thought I'd have an expanse of time to dedicate my life to anything. But I thought, if I can turn people on to the stars, eventually some would make the cosmic connection to find out what the universe is all about. For me, turning people on to the stars became my form of priesthood and therapy."
The fight continues
Last year, Horkheimer was diagnosed with colon cancer and went through 3 months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. "I kept my cancer a secret for 2 months, and I finally knew that I couldn't do it anymore," says Horkheimer. "I'm a recognizable figure in this town, and people were seeing me at the cancer clinic and going into the hospital for radiation."
He continues, "I was in total agony. I didn't realize it would be this bad." Horkheimer was the first person in South Florida to undergo a new treatment called tomotherapy. And he decided to televise the treatment, so he could be an inspiration to others fighting cancer. "I thought, 'Yeah, let me talk to my people at Channel 2 and the museum and explain, look, I've got cancer, everybody's going to know about it sooner or later. Let me make the official announcement on TV.'"
Horkheimer says the cancer has given him an extra sense of urgency about things, especially his new DVD, Stargazing for Absolute Beginners.
Through it all, Horkheimer's passion for the night sky keeps him looking up and forward. He's one of the great astronomy popularizers of this generation.