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Former teacher hopes to reunite with students for eclipse

UPDATED: Sun., Aug. 20, 2017

This photo provided by Bob Baer and Sarah Kovac, participants in the Citizen CATE Experiment, shows a "diamond ring" shape during the 2016 total solar eclipse in Indonesia. (R. Baer, S. Kovac / Associated Press)
This photo provided by Bob Baer and Sarah Kovac, participants in the Citizen CATE Experiment, shows a "diamond ring" shape during the 2016 total solar eclipse in Indonesia. (R. Baer, S. Kovac / Associated Press)
By Susan Olp Billings Gazette

BILLINGS, Mont. – About 15 years ago, while Tom Stahley was teaching science at Skyview High School, he got an idea.

“Part of earth science is teaching about eclipses,” he said, recalling that time. “And one year I decided we should probably remind these kids to take in this event if possible. So it came to me to give out cards.”

Stahley, 63, and now retired, printed business cards with details about the next total solar eclipse, on Aug. 21, 2017.

“This is your invitation to a once in a lifetime event,” the card said.

Stahley picked the outside of the Casper College Tate Geological Museum at 10 a.m., as the meeting place. Casper, Wyoming, unlike Billings, is in the path of totality, meaning the sun will be completely hidden by the moon.

The card suggested the students bring their friends and spouses, which brought comments from the 14- and 15-year-olds who couldn’t imagine being married.

“I said, ‘We’ll grab lunch and a cold beverage – I prefer iced tea,’ ” Stahley said, smiling. “They said, ‘We’ll be old enough to drink? We’ll be there!’ ”

He figures he handed out 1,000 cards before he retired in 2015. Stahley doesn’t know how many students will join him, but he intends to be at the museum parking lot on Monday morning with his wife, Sue. His hair is longer than it used to be, but former students will find him in a long-sleeve rust-colored Columbia shirt, pants and a tan hat.

Thousands of people are expected to flock to the southern Wyoming city, as well as other Wyoming towns in the direct path of the eclipse. For Stahley, it will actually be the second time he’s experienced such a dramatic event.

On Feb. 26, 1979, three years out of college, he drove with a few of his former classmates to Lewistown to watch a total solar eclipse. It lasted only 90 seconds, but “it makes you feel pretty small,” he said.

“I could sense the temperature drop as the sun went over,” Stahley said. “I saw a few things in the sky, planets and stars.”

He quickly shot some photos, using special filters on his camera. Though the full eclipse will last longer this time, he intends to forgo taking pictures and instead watch the people around him, listen to the sounds “and take in more of the senses rather than just the visual.”

The first eclipse affected him enough that he knew he had to make every effort to see a second one. He decided to share such a profound experience with his students.

Come Monday morning, Amanda Eastman plans to be in Casper to view the eclipse. She first learned about it in 2010 when she was in Tom Stahley’s earth science class.

“I remember at the end of my freshman year he gave us these cards to come to the solar eclipse,” she said. “I didn’t think too much about it.”

By the time Eastman was a junior, Stahley had retired from the district and gone to work as a teacher in Powell, Wyoming. She began to think it would be fun to see how many of her classmates she could get to meet up with Stahley in Casper.

So Eastman created a Facebook page, using the small card that now was filled with pin holes, as a focal point. She invited 109 people, and 41 clicked on the “going” option, while another nine expressed interest.

Eastman doesn’t really know how many classmates will show up. She and some friends plan to leave early Monday for the drive to Casper to meet up with Stahley and his wife.

Eastman, now 21, is excited to see her former teacher, and to experience the eclipse.

“It’s funny,” she said. “It seemed so far away at the time, and now it’s almost here.”

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