The Man Who Painted the Universe, by Ron Legro and Avi Lank |
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The Man Who Painted the Universe, by Ron Legro and Avi Lank

Reviewed by Shelby Anderson
Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 160 pages, $22.95

One of the charms of visiting the North Woods of Wisconsin is stumbling upon the occasional quirky attraction. Turn down a side road, and you might discover a park full of concrete-based sculpture or a wooden Muskie the size of a semi.

The Kovac Planetarium in tiny Monico is one of those hidden Wisconsin treasures and the focus of a new book by Ron Legro and Avi Lank. Legro and Lank are experienced writers and editors from Milwaukee, and their book, The Man Who Painted the Universe: The Story of a Planetarium in the Heart of the North Woods, reflects their skill as both storytellers and chroniclers of how one man’s dream became reality.

Legro and Lank’s slim volume tells the story of Frank Kovac Jr. and his quixotic quest to build a planetarium on his North Woods property. Growing up in Chicago, Kovac fell in love with the cosmos when his mom took him to the Adler Planetarium. As a boy, he read every book on astronomy at his local library and eventually repurposed his parents’ backyard tool shed into a small observatory. Through these endeavors young Kovac pursued his passion, but Legro and Lank note they were really just practice for what he would later attempt. “A newer, bigger plan was forming in his mind, one based on his love of astronomy and all the dreams he’d already realized. Someday, he thought. Someday.

Against this backdrop, Legro and Lank paint the portrait of an optimistic, determined man who, above all else, wants to share his love for and knowledge of the cosmos.

At the age of 19, when most young men are pursuing girls or saving money for a car, Kovac spent his savings on remote patch of property near Monico, Wisconsin (just off of Highway 8 between Rhinelander and Crandon).

“It was almost like something was tugging at me,” Kovac says in the book. “I could see something, and I could envision this before it even existed.”

Kovac worked jobs in Illinois and northern Michigan, eventually landing a career in the Air Force where his mechanical skills and creativity served him well. When he finally moved to rural Monico, he had the ability and determination to pursue his dream project: a mechanically rotating globe planetarium in which visitors could sit and see wonders of the night sky.

Kovac toiled on his property for about a decade and spent almost $200,000 of his own money in pursuit of his dream planetarium. His first version didn’t survive the Wisconsin winter. While his second attempt was more sturdy, Legro and Lank recount one incident where the 4,000 pound, 22-foot-diameter planetarium “globe, dangling from the remaining, uppermost strap, became unstable, rocking back and forth until it began sliding off the ring toward the floor. Underneath the globe, Frank ran to the center and crouched as it fell around him.”

Other unforeseen setbacks and challenges make for entertaining reading, but, overall, the reader is impressed by Kovac’s determination. 

The final step of the project was perhaps one of the biggest challenges in building the planetarium. In a beautiful combination of art and science, Kovac spent five months—from January to May of 2003—painting the night sky as it is seen above northern Wisconsin onto the interior surface of the globe.

Remarkably, note Legro and Lank, Kovac often painted from memory, taking breaks to go outside and peer up at the night sky to check his work.

Professional astronomers who have visited the Kovac Planetarium remark on its accuracy. To this day, Frank will climb a ladder and touch up his night sky with dabs of luminous paint; adding and taking away stars, or adjusting their brightness, to reflect new astronomical discoveries.

The Kovac Planetarium, which today welcomes thousands of visitors each year, is a testament to one man’s determination. Amateur astronomers and lovers of the weird and wonderful will appreciate Legro and Lank’s thorough research and interviews with Kovac’s family, friends, and neighbors as they pursue the mechanism that drives his passion. The Man Who Painted the Universe: The Story of a Planetarium in the Heart of the North Woods includes photographs chronicling the construction process of the planetarium, which are helpful and interesting visual aids. Like the Kovac Planetarium itself, Legro and Lank combine science and art and create a piece of work everyone can enjoy and appreciate.

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Shelby Anderson is a staff member of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and editor of their magazine, Wisconsin School News. A lifelong resident of Wisconsin, Anderson has worked as a reporter at newspapers in Minocqua and Sun Prairie. He lives in Madison with his wife, Laura, and daughter, Pippa.

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