Don Herbert inspired many baby boomers as children and sparked an interest in science through his long-running "Mr. Wizard" television show in the 1950s and '60s.

But "Mr. Wizard" had his start in La Crosse, growing up here and graduating both from Central High School in 1935 and what then was known as the La Crosse Teachers College in 1940.

Herbert, who had bone cancer, died Tuesday at age 89 at his home in Bell Canyon, Calif.

To baby boomers, Herbert was what "Sesame Street" and Mr. Rogers was for their children. His popular TV show, "Watch Mr. Wizard," ran on NBC-TV from 1951 to 1965.

The show was revived on NBC in 1971 for a season, and then he hosted "Mr. Wizard's World" on the Nickelodeon channel from 1983 to 1990.

Herbert twice was nominated for an Emmy and won a Peabody Award for best TV program for children, plus three Thomas Edison awards. He showed up frequently on talk shows, including "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night With David Letterman."

His demonstrations seemed magical - he'd put a hard-boiled egg over a milk bottle that contained a burning piece of paper and, poof, the egg was in the bottle - but he explained the science behind them.

He was credited with popularizing science in the U.S.; more than 5,000 Mr. Wizard clubs formed across the country in response to his show.

Don Olson, now retired after 25 years as a Central physics teacher, said Mr. Wizard helped ignite his interest in science.

"I tried to do the same things in my classroom as Mr. Wizard - to make things interesting," Olson said.

"I liked that Mr. Wizard always asked, 'Why does it do that?' He brought science to the kids' level and showed how much fun science can be."

Gary Checkai, a Central chemistry teacher for 31 years, said his parochial school didn't teach science, so he turned to Mr. Wizard.

"I liked that he tied everything to experiments," Checkai said. "Too many kids think they should learn science when they should be experiencing it."

Mr. Wizard was born Don Herbert Kemske in Waconia, Minn., but attended schools in La Crosse. He said he became interested in science when he was a Boy Scout in La Crosse.

He received an undergraduate degree in English and general science, but never taught a class. Known for his acting ability in college, he pursued that and radio work after graduating.

Herbert was cast for a youth lead in a Broadway show but never played the role because he volunteered for the Army Air Corps and flew 56 missions over Italy, Germany and Yugoslavia, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

"He never became a science teacher, but you might say he was everybody's science teacher," said Mary Patros of La Crosse, a classmate of Herbert's at Central High School. "More people probably became science teachers because of him."

Patros said her brother, George Markos, was a close friend of Herbert, and she would see Herbert when he'd return to visit his mother, Lydia Kemske.

Patros nominated Herbert for Central's Hall of Excellence award, and he was inducted in 2003. He could not attend the ceremony, so Patros said a few words for him.

Herbert appeared as well on the CBS-TV children's show, "Razzmatazz." He produced a series of 90-second science spots, "How About," for news and information TV shows.

He also produced numerous science programs for adults and classroom films for students. He developed a video series for teachers and wrote numerous science books, including "Mr. Wizard Supermarket Science" and "Mr. Wizard Experiments for Young Scientists."

Herbert received the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse's distinguished alumni award in 1984, and spoke at UW-L commencement in 1968.

He said in that speech, "Curiosity can act as a catalyst. In the future, it may not be the independent discovery but the development of curiosity that is the most important thing."

Herbert is survived by his wife of 34 years, Norma; his two sons and a daughter from his first marriage, Jay and Jeffrey and Jill Rogers; his stepdaughters, Kendra Jeffcoat and Kris Nikosey; his stepson, Kim Kasell; and 13 grandchildren. Funeral services are pending.

Terry Rindfleisch can be reached at trindfleisch@lacrossetribune.com or (608) 791-8227.

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