Montana State University

MSU professor recalls life-changing total solar eclipse experience

August 16, 2017 -- by Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service

During the Feb. 26, 1979 total solar eclipse, an enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana as part of the Montana State University-sponsored Eclipse ’79 event. Northern Cheyenne spiritual leader John Woodenlegs is pictured at the podium in the background. Photo by Ray Pearson, originally published in Bozeman, Montana-based High Country News.

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BOZEMAN - On the morning of Feb. 26, 1979, in the minutes leading up to the last total solar eclipse over the continental U.S. in the 20th century, Michael Sexson, along with an enthusiastic crowd of perhaps 2,000 others gathered behind the Museum of the Rockies, had resigned themselves to not seeing the rare and awe-inspiring celestial event.

Clouds blanketed the sky. “Every now and then you’d see a little ray of sunshine peaking in,” recalls Sexson, who at that time was an English professor at Montana State University. “It did not bode well for the many, many months of work we had put into this.”

By “this,” he means a three-day, MSU-sponsored celebration called Eclipse ’79, which Sexson organized with his wife and then-MSU professor of history and philosophy, Lynda Sexson. The event brought together poets, physicists, artists, musicians and scholars for what Sexson remembers as a “lively and intense” community conversation that explored the mythology, symbolism and science of the sun and moon, darkness and light.

The event featured movie showings at Bozeman’s Ellen Theater, art exhibitions, music performances and speaker presentations. The climax of the celebration was slated to be, of course, the roughly one-minute period when the moon would align perfectly with the sun, casting an eerie daytime darkness over much of Montana.

But the clouds threatened to turn that moment to anti-climax.

It was then that Northern Cheyenne spiritual leader John Woodenlegs, an invited speaker for the Eclipse ’79 event, took to the podium and began to chant a prayer in his native tongue. As he did, a small rift in the clouds began to widen.

Moments later, the full round of the sun revealed itself as the moon drifted into alignment, producing a ring of feathery light around the Earth’s star.

The crowd at the museum went silent, awe-struck by what was happening. Meanwhile, distant cheers erupted across the MSU campus and Bozeman, Sexson recalls.

“I can’t think of a more dramatic experience of the eclipse in 1979 – anywhere,” he says.

The extraordinary occurrence was memorialized in articles in the Washington Post, LIFE Magazine and others. But the legend, Sexson says, can’t compare to the experience.

“Even if one doesn’t ascribe to it the powers of the supernatural, it is a wonderful story to tell,” he says.

The unexpected eclipse viewing underlined what he and his MSU colleagues were trying to accomplish with Eclipse ’79: to bring people together and produce a memorable experience by sharing in a rare and otherworldly event.

“I can’t think of any other event in my life that has generated, to the same degree, what you would call common bonds,” says Sexson, now a retired emeritus Regents Professor in the Department of English in MSU’s College of Letters and Science.

The event may have set a high bar for eclipse-viewing, but the lesson for the upcoming eclipse is simple: Get out and view the eclipse, Sexson says. Do whatever it takes.

On Aug. 21, Bozeman will experience a partial eclipse in which the moon will obscure about 95 percent of the sun. The more dramatic total solar eclipse will take place over a tiny portion of southwest Montana, plus much of Idaho and Wyoming. The next total solar eclipses in the contiguous U.S. won’t take place until 2024 and 2045.

“Trust me, it’s a big deal,” Sexson says of the upcoming eclipse. “It is one of those experiences that you will remember for the rest of your life.”

Contact: Marshall Swearingen, marshall.swearingen@montana.edu, 406-994-5036.

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