College of Arts & Sciences


Impact The Campaign for Boston University


“I’d heard all my life about the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. Think I could have picked them out on my own? I’ve lived in urban environments my entire life—I’m lucky if I get to see the moon.” —Gerry Gitner Photo by John Wilkendorf of Lowell Observatory

A look at the night sky through powerful BU-supported telescopes opened up new worlds for a longtime aviation executive

By Francie King

He founded an airline. He was chair and chief executive officer of Trans World Airlines and vice chair of Pan American World Airways. He’s been just about everywhere you could go in an airplane. But despite a career focused on the skies, Gerry Gitner (CAS’66) would probably not have called himself a stargazer.

That changed in October 2014, when this energetic, accomplished aviation executive turned private investor joined 12 other BU alumni in Flagstaff, Arizona, to look at the night sky through two BU-supported telescopes: the Perkins Telescope at the Lowell Observatory and the nearby Discovery Channel Telescope, the fifth largest in the continental United States. What Gitner came home with was a set of impressions—not just of the stupendous canopy of stars (undimmed, in Flagstaff, by urban light pollution), but of his fellow alums and of an unforgettable learning experience.

“I’d studied astronomy at BU years ago, not as a major but to fulfill a science requirement,” Gitner says about his decision to attend. “But I’d never been in an observatory. The trip sounded fascinating.”

BU astronomy experts Professor Dan Clemens and Assistant Professor Andrew West, who guided the amateur observers, provided the alumni group with a good grounding in basic astronomy, in “terms that weren’t a bunch of quadratic equations,” Gitner says. “Being out there at night, seeing the stars in the middle of nowhere, and having somebody with us who knew what to look for” was illuminating, he says. “I’d heard all my life about the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. Think I could have picked them out on my own? I’ve lived in urban environments my entire life—I’m lucky if I get to see the moon.”

The trip, Experience: Space Beyond Earth, was the first in a new series of intensive educational programs offered by the BU Alumni Association. The programs aim to provide alums with access to BU sites and professors and their work worldwide. The 13 alumni on the Arizona trip ranged in age from 22 to 76 and had come from eight states. They shared an alma mater and a desire to learn.

There were behind-the-scenes tours and hands-on practice in operating the Perkins Telescope, which is run by the Lowell Observatory in partnership with BU. The alums were also treated to intimate views of the cosmos through the $53 million Discovery Channel Telescope, financed in part by the University and operated by the observatory.

The trip included some sweet serendipity for Gitner.

“Many years ago,” he says, “my wife, Deanne, and I established an annual prize called the Gitner Prize for Distinguished Teaching (see below). And, lo and behold, Andrew West introduced himself to me and said, memorably, ‘Are you the Gitner?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he said, ‘Are you the Gitner? I won this teaching prize at BU.’ And I said ‘Wow! You’re the first awardee I’ve ever met!’ It was just amazing. All of a sudden, here was a new connection. Here was someone who got the benefit of our endowment, and he’s prospering and succeeding.

“The most important part of the whole Flagstaff experience,” says Gitner, “was the people. They all cared, they all enjoyed it, they all learned. And now I’m looking forward to hearing about BU’s next exciting journey.”

Star Prize

When Gerry Gitner joined a BU alumni trip to the Discovery Channel Telescope in Arizona, he met Professor Andrew West, a recipient of a teaching prize Gitner had endowed. Photo courtesy of B. W. Taylor

The Gitner Prize Fund for Distinguished Teaching, established in 1995, is one of several endowed awards supported by Gerry and Deanne Gitner. It is given annually to a faculty member who “exemplifies interest and great skill in the teaching of undergraduates.” Recently, the Gitners established the annual Gerald and Deanne Gitner Family Award for Innovation in Teaching with Technology; recipients receive a $10,000 prize. Among other endowed funds, the Gitners also provide recognition for teaching excellence in economics and history. Gitner continues his active involvement with BU as a member of the CAS Dean’s Advisory Board; he is also a Trustee Emeritus.