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New executive director aims to elevate Custer Institute

The 93-year-old Custer Institute has hired its first-ever executive director.

Longtime volunteer Cynthia Cichanowicz recently began the new role and said her top priority is to build on the momentum gained since she first visited Custer in 2010.

“I started coming more often to observe,” Ms. Cichanowicz said during an interview at the institute last Thursday. “There’s so many interesting people and things about space to learn — it just pulled me in.”

Since then, she’s become “instrumental,” in leading the organization’s efforts, according to Custer board president Charles Cardona. As a volunteer who officially joined the board in 2017, Ms. Cichanowicz has helped secure a $32,000 grant to bring electric vehicle charging stations to the site, started a beekeeping club, taught courses in astrophotography and dedicated hundreds of hours guiding visitors during public viewing sessions in the observatories on Saturday nights.

She even beautified a basement workshop, where mirrors for telescopes undergo grinding and repairs, by painting a mural of the major constellations on the bare white walls.

“We always were an all-volunteer organization and we really knew we wanted to take the next step,” Mr. Cardona said. “We want to expand and do a lot more for the community.”

Her goals include increasing membership, seeking out grant opportunities, planning events — the institute will soon begin preparing for its centennial — and increasing engagement with the community and local schools through field trips and other science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.

Ms. Cardona said the board has been aiming to hire an executive director for at least a decade, but got serious about it in recent years to try and keep up with rapid growth fueled by tourism in the area. The part-time position is being funded in part by a $5,000 grant provided by the Charles and Helen Reichert Family Foundation, plus the organization’s own fundraising initiatives.

“[Years ago,] it was rare that we would have 20 people here,” Mr. Cardona said. “Now, it’s rare we have 20 people because it’s usually 50 or 100.” 

On a recent February night, more than 30 skygazers came bundled up to observe.

Ultimately, Mr. Cardona hopes to expand beyond just being open for four hours on Saturday nights.

“With volunteers only, that’s a big ask. So with Cynthia here, we’ll be trying to offer programs during the week.”

The nonprofit was founded in 1927 and has grown beyond astronomy to include programs in music, geology and beekeeping. The observatories are open to the public every Saturday evening for viewing through their telescopes.

Ms. Cichanowicz, an avid amateur astronomer, now owns a few telescopes of her own and has found a passion in astrophotography. She often teaches members how to take these photos and printed about a dozen images that now decorate the top of the table in the common room.

Though she holds an engineering degree, space intrigues her. “It’s fascinating,” she said, encouraging others to visit the observatory and museum. “There’s a lot of cool stuff to look at in the telescopes — galaxies, nebulae, the planets. And the moon is always beautiful too.”

The Custer Institute is located at 1115 Main Bayview Road in Southold.