Pioneering astronomer, NASA engineer to enter Central High Hall of Fame

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A ground-breaking astronomer and a NASA engineer now working to send humans back to the moon are among the new inductees into the Central High School Hall of Fame.

Those two Central graduates who helped push back the boundaries of space – and eight others who distinguished themselves in the arts, science, education and other fields – will be honored Thursday night during a dinner at the school.

Joel Stebbins is largely a forgotten name in Omaha, but the 1896 Central graduate is well-known in astronomical circles.

Stebbins developed a new method for measuring distances in space that helped him make innumerable discoveries related to the sun, other stars, the planet Uranus, interstellar dust and the size of the universe. He was recognized with astronomy’s Rumford Prize, the National Academy of Sciences’ Henry Draper Medal and a gold medal from Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society.

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Jennifer Gruber, a 1994 graduate, is a manager in NASA’s Artemis campaign, which is preparing to send American astronauts back to the moon later this decade.

As Artemis’ cross-program integration lead for the human landing system program, the aerospace engineer is contributing to the development of the lunar lander that will bring astronauts to the moon’s surface.

The fact Stebbins and Gruber graduated 98 years apart speaks to the long history of Central, which was founded as Omaha’s first high school in 1859.

In addition to the Hall of Fame dinner, Gruber is making two other appearances in Omaha next week.

She will speak Friday at a Central alumni lunch at the Omaha Field Club, 3615 Woolworth Ave., at 11:30 am

At 6 pm Friday, Gruber will speak about the Artemis program at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum near Ashland. Former Nebraska astronaut Clayton Anderson, CEO of the museum, will also take part in the event, which is free and open to the public.

Other new Central Hall of Fame inductees:

Thomas Novotny (1965). Through public health research with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Novotny helped the surgeon general sound the alarm on the dangers of smoking and tobacco use.

Stephanie Kurtzub Coakley (1990). The actress has earned acclaim on both screen and stage, performing on Broadway in “Mary Poppins” and “Billy Elliot” and playing roles in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Irishman” and the film adaptation of “Annie,” among others.

Gennean Scott (1994). Scott has dedicated her performing arts career to increasing opportunity and diversity, currently serving as the first director of equity, diversity and inclusion for Broadway in New York.

Keith Bigsby. The educator spent parts of three decades at Central as a teacher, coach and administrator, including serving from 2010 to 2013 as the school’s 18th principal.

Richard Fellman (1953). Fellman served in the Legislature, was elected to the Douglas County Board and three times won the Democratic Party’s nomination for Congress.

Michael Thompson (1955). Thompson became the first African American to graduate at the top of a dental class at Creighton University before embarking on a 26-year Air Force career in which he directed medical facilities around the world.

Christine Andreasen Pellman (1982). Pellman contributed to Central as a longtime leader of its parent organization and alumni association.

Harry Gaylor. His 51-year Omaha Public Schools teaching career included 36 at Central, where he led the school’s DECA program.

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