Donna Pierce, an 83-year-old astronomy teacher, devoted Girl Scout, and diehard Rice University alumna, is known to students and faculty at Highland Park High School simply as “The Star Lady.”
From her planetarium, tucked in a corner of the high school, lessons demonstrating her keen knowledge and enthusiasm for the night sky have been as consistent a part of campus life as her sharp wit and Mars-red lipstick.
Pierce has taken students to visit The University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory since 1983, when she founded the high school’s Astronomy Club.
Her role on the observatory’s Board of Visitors has spanned even longer than those 35 years.
“I have a [board] pin with more stars on it than most people,” Pierce said.
She also has been a faithful Girl Scout for 77 years, taking her own Troop SU160 camping and showing the girls the night sky, of course.
Pierce remembers growing up in Pampa, Texas in the 1940s. It may have been small— she didn’t see a television until college— but it was a lively community. Her parents frequently had guests to their house, and those visitors would often ask Pierce what she intended to be when she grew up.
“I would always say, ‘a nurse,’ and my daddy would look down at me and say, ‘Why don’t you want to be a doctor?’ And I just think that hit like an explosive,” she said. “I can be anything I want.”
Years later, when Pierce wanted to be a Boy Scout merit badge counselor, she signed up as “D. Pierce” to disguise the fact that she was a woman.
During World War II, instead of wearing the leather boots her ration book provided, she opted for a pair of steel-toed boots from her father’s workshop.
“They were ugly as heck, but when you line up as a little kid, you say, ‘You can’t step on my toes. I have steel toes,” she said.
After completing an architecture degree at Rice, Pierce worked as a volunteer at Fair Park, educating herself about astronomy and giving free shows for Dallas ISD students. Pierce helped organize the planetarium shows at the Science Building for 15 years.
The Science Building closed with the opening of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in 2012, leaving Dallas without a public planetarium for the first time in decades. Pierce and other area astronomers, are hoping to get the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Dallas Love Field to install a fixed dome, bringing planetarium shows back to the residents of Dallas.
“I am the mother hen, and I get us together for meetings,” she said. “When we found out the Perot had left out a planetarium, it really hurt. They have a new exhibit about space, yet they won’t even upgrade the Astronomy Hall.”
Spencer Allan is a junior at Highland Park High School.