What's that in the sky? Ask CUFOS

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He joined in 1974, and, yes, he worried at first that it would reflect badly on him (though decades later it's had no impact on his career, he said). "I was 20 and, you have to remember, UFOs were much more seriously interesting to people in the 1970s. There was a wave of sightings. I was in college and read that Dr. Hynek was starting a center, so I wrote and asked to volunteer. Which took a few tries. He was hard to convince. He wanted a professional organization through and through, a research institution. He wanted Ph.D.s, professors. He was 64 and had started the center as a nonprofit, a 401(c)3. He was not a great administrator but he was wonderful, open to ideas.

"In the 1940s, he was a young astronomer at The Ohio State University when the Air Force asked if he wanted to make a little consulting fee on the side, advising them on UFO reports. All the established (astronomers) had said no. But Hynek worked for the government during (World War II) and already had security clearances, so he traveled around and listened to UFO testimonies. He was perfect for it, but didn't really believe in the credibility of UFOs at first."

Ironically, it's Hynek who is responsible for first dismissing UFO sightings as "swamp gas."

"When I think about that infamous episode, I think about 'Mad Men,'" Rodeghier said, "how Hynek didn't want to compromise principles, yet the Air Force was his client and paying him for a service — to calm people."

Rodeghier jumped up and walked to a stack of boxes and found a picture of Hynek. "Quintessential professor," Rodeghier said, placing the frame in front of me. "Absent-minded, smoked a pipe." In the photo, Hynek looked like Hemingway impersonating a Confederate general. Straight out of central casting, I remarked.

Indeed, Hynek, who would eventually chafe at the public relations aspect of his Air Force job and begin to empathize with the people he was tasked with dismissing, went on to develop the "Close Encounter" ranking system for UFO sightings that gave Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" its title. (Hynek even had a close-up in the film, during the Devil's Tower finale, playing a scientist, smoking a pipe.)

"The thing is," Rodeghier went on, "he was an old-school guy, meaning that he was used to research money, and at Northwestern he had structure. When the Air Force closed Project Blue Book (in 1969), it opened the flood gates for others to get involved, but Hynek gave the subject some legitimacy, I think. We never really expected that we would solve anything. But we thought there would be breakthroughs. What it didn't lead to was research money. Northwestern was never happy with him studying UFOs and never offered support. Or an office for the center." Hynek retired in 1978, emeritus. He died in '86 of a brain tumor.

"What was this job like when you started?" I asked.

"More exciting," he said.

So I told him about my sighting.

He asked if I shot video.

I pulled out my phone and showed the jittery video I shot of a light in the sky, which now looked much less luminous (and far more colorless) than I recalled. He rubbed his face.

"Look, these videos, they're never impressive," he said. "You do a good job of actually capturing it, but the problem is there's no context, no buildings, no lakefront. There is no context." He said he gets lots of videos. He almost never investigates.

Actually, CUFOS is not the only UFO investigation and education organization in the area. There's also the Illinois chapter of the Mutual UFO Network, a national group founded in 1969 in Quincy, Ill., on the Missouri border. In 2006, both MUFON and CUFOS investigated the UFO widely reported over O'Hare International Airport, and the local MUFON, based in Orland Park, was on top of a mass UFO sighting in Tinley Park in 2004. MUFON gets reports daily; CUFOS (being more of an academically minded group) about once a week.

The truth, Rodeghier said, is Chicago never got many sightings and, in general, excitement drained out of the field 25 years ago. "The thing about science is you can't do good science without money, and scientists involved with us became less involved when they realized we couldn't make progress. There are still serious people left, but not many." The group, which once had hundreds of participants, now counts about a dozen active associates; in 2012 it published the final issue of its academic journal, International UFO Reporter.

The CUFOS' mission hasn't changed: serve as a depot for UFO reports, act as a resource. "We're 90 percent as effective as we've ever been," he said. The biggest change is the quality of the reports. "We used to get people with supposed physical evidence, multiple witnesses. Now it's always lights in the distance."

I'm part of the problem.

Actually, said Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium (who runs a summer program at Adler for high school students that Hynek ran in the 1960s, and, yes, it involves high-altitude weather balloons), the downfall began in the late 1970s when UFO studies gravitated to alien abduction. "I'm an astronomer, I want to see a UFO, but I'm skeptical because the issue is too important to take lightly."

The hot phenomenon in UFOs now, he added, "is the mysterious red glowing ball in the sky."

No way …

A couple of nights after I saw my UFO, I saw an identical red glowing ball in almost the same spot, only closer now. It was close enough to discern a flicker of flame dancing along the bottom. It was a sky lantern, a kind of pretty miniature hot-air balloon, which the Illinois state fire marshal recently categorized as a firework (and, therefore, illegal). The sky lantern has become the bane of UFOlogists, said Sam Maranto, director of MUFON's local chapter. "We've been plagued by the sky lantern; they just muddy the waters."

Indeed, UFO spotters say their next eventual headache will be commercial drones.

The summer sky will get crowded.

UFO reports will require texture, detail. "Frankly, at this point," Rodeghier said, "we're over lights in the sky."

cborrelli@tribune.com

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