Thousands of people descended upon Middle Tennessee State University for the “Great Tennessee Eclipse” event Monday, Aug. 21, knowing there was a good chance they wouldn’t be around for the next total eclipse over this area five-plus centuries from now.
They cheered wildly as the epic, coast-to-coast solar eclipse reached totality — with the sky literally darkening and exposing the planets Venus and Jupiter to the naked eye — around 1:29 p.m. in the central campus area called the Science Corridor of Innovation.
Braving 90-plus degree heat and bringing pop-up tents, fold-out chairs, picnic blankets and even a hammock, several thousand attendees gathered for the event. Visitors from as far away as China and other foreign countries joined Americans from across the country at MTSU to observe the awe-inspiring celestial phenomenon.
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon, which is 250,000 miles away, passes between Earth and the sun, which is 93 million miles away from the planet.
“It was beautiful,” said Kagen Elmore, 10, a fourth-grader at Hobgood Elementary School, attending the event with his classmates and his brother, Torrian, father, Will, and mother, Beverly, who teaches science, technology, engineering and math — STEM — at Hobgood.
Murfreesboro City Schools brought 600 children to the MTSU campus, which was one of six official viewing sites in the Greater Nashville Area. While city schools were in session Monday, Rutherford County Schools were closed, allowing its students and their families to attend eclipse viewing events at MTSU and others in the area.
Hobgood third-grader Gabryella Gibson, 8, said said thought the eclipse “was really cool and I was scared a little bit. It was like a picture someone drew in the sky.”
“It was awesome,” added Hobgood fourth-grader Armando Pacheco, 9. “It was fun to see the moon in front of the sun.”
“Everybody was saying it was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Once it happened, children were screaming with delight,” said Lisa Trail, director of communications for Murfreesboro City Schools.
MTSU biochemistry alumnus Peter Ghattas, a native of Alexandria, Egypt, who now lives in Nashville, was first in line to obtain a pair of the 9,000-plus free safety glasses sponsored by Turner Construction.
MTSU’s event featured a main stage that showcased student musical performances in the hours leading up to the total eclipse, as well as on-stage interviews with faculty about eclipse viewing safety, the science behind it, the fascinating visuals and responses from it.
“I woke up early,” Ghattas said of his early arrival for the event. “This is my school. It’s like my second home. I know the area of totality is less than Nashville, but I feel relaxed here.”
Lane College biology teacher Diane Sklensky drove with a friend to Murfreesboro from Jackson, Tennessee, because “there was totality here and not in Jackson,” where she lives.
“I am so proud to be associated with this event,” said John Gromos, vice president of Turner Construction, said. “What a great day to be in Middle Tennessee and to be at MTSU.”
Gromos told the audience that Turner currently has 25 MTSU grads on its roster, helping build other buildings. Turner built the new Science Building in 2014 and renovated Davis Science Building and Wiser-Patten Science Hall, both of which reopened this year.
Football head coach Rick Stockstill, men’s basketball head coach Kermit Davis and baseball coach Jim McGuire also were part of the event. Stockstill invited everyone to come out for the Blue Raiders’ Sept. 2 football home opener against Vanderbilt, Davis and McGuire helped with an explanation about the solar eclipse.
University President Sidney A. McPhee spoke to the crowd and entertained his special guests, which included the Hunan Normal University president and first lady and members of the MTSU Board of Trustees.
A group of 140 attended from the University of Alabama-Huntsville. High school groups came from Florence, Alabama, and The Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee.
One family from Corbin, Kentucky, made a point of including astronomy-themed items in their picnic lunch, comprising Sun Chips, Sunkist soft drinks, Moon Pies and Eclipse and Orbit chewing gun. Other guests celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, and the special “selfie spot” for the Great Tennessee Eclipse was a hit.
Artists from the Match Records label in the College of Media and Entertainment performed for nearly two hours.
Department of Physics and Astronomy professor John Wallin described the 1-minute plus total eclipse as “way cooler than I thought. … That was fun. I’m going to try to remember some of it. We’re so lucky we got great weather.”
While walking to try and find his own family, Wallin encountered a mother, daughter and friends from Huntsville and instantly became an MTSU recruiter. Mom Esther Phillips-Ross is on the Alabama A&M faculty, and daughter Elisabeth Embden, 16, is a junior at Hazel Green High School with an interest in astronomy, physics and astrophysics.
You can still watch MTSU’s production of the “Great Tennessee Eclipse” event on Facebook Live at www.facebook.com/mtsublueraiders. MTSU’s broadcast also was livestreamed and broadcast via satellite uplink and through public access channels across Tennessee and the nation.
Another total solar eclipse will occur in seven years along the path of the Mississippi River, experts say. The next total eclipse to cross the Midstate will be in 2566.
MTSU’s physics and astronomy faculty and staff collected the special eclipse safety glasses to distribute to Third World countries for future eclipses.
— Randy Weiler (email@example.com)