A bricklayer and family man from Sunderland has been honoured for his role in creating one of Britain’s most famous astronomical observatories. 

Gary Fildes – the director of the Kielder Observatory – received an honorary degree from the University of Sunderland yesterday in a ceremony at the Stadium of Light.

The honorary degree was for his work in making astronomy and space sciences accessible to a wider public. 

Gary became fascinated by astronomy when he was only nine – after playing with his brother’s telescope in the back garden of his family’s Sunderland home on Christmas Day, 1974. 

Gary later became a bricklayer and brought up a family, but he never lost his passion for the stars. In 2002, he joined the Sunderland Astronomy Society. 

Following their motto ‘who stares wins’, the society set up a small observatory in the Washington Wetlands Centre. But Gary – with the enthusiastic support of the Kielder Forest authorities – soon began fundraising to build a more state-of-the-art observatory there. 

The Kielder Observatory now attracts around 20,000 visitors a year, making it one of the north east’s top tourist attractions.

Gary said, “It’s an honour to be recognised by my hometown university, and to be in the Stadium of Light makes the whole occasion even more special.”

“I’m not religious, but this is my church where I come to worship every other Saturday!”

“The most important part of today for me was seeing all those graduates and their happy faces beaming from the stands. They’ve worked so hard to get here and now they’re off into the world to do their own thing.”

“I think it’s important to understand that the world can be what you want it to be and that starts with change in yourself.”

“That’s why I dedicated my life to science. It revolutionised the way I thought and I would advise any graduate to keep your chin up and just do your best in life.”

A number of honorary degrees are being handed out at the University of Sunderland’s summer graduation ceremonies. The summer graduation will be attended by more than 11,000 students and guests and is estimated to bring around £1 million to Wearside each year.

(Featured image, showing Kielder Observatory, courtesy of Paul Williams, from Flickr Creative Commons)

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