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NEIU President And Her Husband Share Total Eclipses And Their Hearts

 Northeastern Illinois University president Sharon Hahs and her husband Billy have spent the last 22 years chasing total eclipses around the world.
Sharon and Billy Hahs
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NORTH PARK — On Nov. 3, sometime around 2:27 p.m. over the skies of southern Ethiopia, the moon will completely block the sun and create a solar eclipse.

Sharon Hahs, the president of Northeastern Illinois University, and her husband Billy, will be there to document the ultra-rare event, which occurs about once a year and lasts about the time it takes to run a good 100-meter dash.

"I'm leaving the university for two weeks to see a totality of 11 seconds," Sharon Hahs said matter of factly.

The Hahses have spent the last 22 years chasing eclipses, what they call their "passion." They have journeyed to the great ends of the earth, from the extreme cold of northern Mongolia, to the isolated Easter Island, to the Atacama desert of Chile, considered one of the world's driest places.

It's all in an effort to watch the moon pass over the sun, blocking all its light except the corona, which leads to what Billy described as "a spectacularly beautiful event."

"It has an emotional kind of element to it," said Billy, an attorney and former professor.

Said his wife, the president at NEIU since 2007: "It's a blend of magic and science. Once you've seen a solar eclipse through totality, you want to see the next one."

Astronomers know exactly where and when eclipses will take place for centuries in advance, so the Hahses plan their vacations well ahead of time. They're already quite prepared for the Ethiopia trip and have begun prepping for the March 20, 2015 eclipse in Svalbard, a Norwegian island well north of the Arctic Circle that has one of the world's highest concentrations of polar bears.

Making the epic treks across the globe doesn't necessary guarantee success. Of their 12 attempts to see eclipses, they've been successful 10 times. In Darkhan, Mongolia, where the Hahses were about 20 miles south of Siberia and which Billy said "hadn't seen a tourist since Genghis Khan," they couldn't view the eclipse due to heavy snowfall. In Costa Rica, their chance at seeing an eclipse was ruined due to cloud cover and rainfall.

Still, the experiences have been well worth it for the couple, who met while Billy was a sophomore and Sharon a freshman at Collinsville (Ill.) High School. They have been married for 44 years, and eclipse watching has been a terrific molding of their educational backgrounds, Sharon in chemistry, Billy in history.

The Hahses took both of their daughters — Cara, a surgeon, and Ona, a Harvard-educated attorney — to an eclipse in Elazig, Turkey, on Aug. 11, 1999. They hope to have the chance to introduce their four grandchildren to the celestial event in the coming years.

"It's a great hobby for them, a way to tie in travel and an appreciation for the stars and the universe around us," said Cara Hahs. "You don't know what it's like until you experience it yourself."

Sharon and Billy split duties during the actual eclipse. Sharon takes photographs of the eclipse, especially hoping to capture totality and a "diamond ring" image when a six-pointed star appears as sunlight begins to emerge. Billy paints the eclipse with watercolors, noting the sky is actually many shades of blue instead of black, which is what photographs show.

"Fortunately you don't have to be a Rembrandt to paint an eclipse," Billy said. "It's a black circle, a blue sky and a white corona."

The couple's spacious home is filled with eclipse memorabilia, framed pictures and paintings from each of their trips, newspaper clippings from the cities where the eclipses took place, and dozens of books devoted to the subject. Their annual gift to family, friends and Sharon's coworkers is an eclipse calendar of her photos. They even have stamps from Thailand and Libya, which dedicated postage to eclipses in 1995 and 2006, respectively.

Each eclipse has had special moments, like the one on June 21, 2001 which they watched on a farm in Zambia, where roosters started to crow and a horse went back to its stable because they thought it was nighttime.

"What is my favorite eclipse? There is no such question," Sharon Hahs said. "We have loved every one of them. ... In some ways, it's kind of unspeakable how happy we are to see them."