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Nantucket’s brightest star

Early on, the association was hosting lectures and observatory viewing, and by the 1920s it was offering science classes. “Up until the 1950s, the sites were still being run by family members,” Leonardo Finger says.

Mitchell believed in “learning by doing,” and led her Vassar students on trips, bringing a class to Iowa in 1869 to view a solar eclipse, and to Colorado in 1878 to view another total eclipse. Beloved by her students, Mitchell retired in 1888 because of failing health. She died in 1889 and was laid to rest in Nantucket’s Prospect Hill Cemetery next to her parents.

The Maria Mitchell Association strives to provide educational opportunities at a variety of levels, from weekly open nights at its Loines Observatory on Milk Street to a competitive internship program. For astronomy students, “This is the place to come,” says David Gagnon, executive director of the Maria Mitchell Association. “It’s a great stepping stone for those kids, and many of them go on to publish.”

Gagnon says the organization is equally proud of its efforts to make astronomy accessible. The open nights at Loines Observatory, he says, attract 3,000 to 4,000 people a year.

The nonprofit is marking this anniversary year with a number of events, including a summertime weekly speaker series and a “Comet Chaser Family Event” at Cisco Brewers on June 3. The July 8 Red-Tie Soirée at Sankaty Head Golf Club is the organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year, with proceeds supporting its work and historic preservation. The August 1 Maria Mitchell 200th Birthday Party and Parade will be followed by an August 10 Harborside Gala and a Meteor Shower Party on August 12.

Asked what Maria Mitchell would think of the organization dedicated to preserving her legacy, Leonardo Finger replies, “She would probably be shocked,” as she was modest by nature. But she thinks Mitchell would appreciate the work being done in her name, and the fact that the Maria Mitchell Association stays true to its mission.

“We do grow, we do change,” she says, “but there’s this heart that beats that’s still connected to Maria.”

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