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Don Herbert; as 'Mr. Wizard,' he brought joy of science to TV

Don Herbert, known as Mr. Wizard, experimenting with magnetism. His first TV show ran from 1951 to 1964. Don Herbert, known as Mr. Wizard, experimenting with magnetism. His first TV show ran from 1951 to 1964.

LOS ANGELES -- Don Herbert, who as television's "Mr. Wizard" introduced generations of young viewers to the joys of science, died yesterday. He was 89.

Mr. Herbert, who had bone cancer, died at his suburban Bell Canyon home, said his son-in-law, Tom Nikosey.

"He really taught kids how to use the thinking skills of a scientist," said former colleague Steve Jacobs. He worked with Mr. Herbert on a 1980s show that echoed the original 1950s "Watch Mr. Wizard" series, which became a fond baby boomer memory.

In "Watch Mr. Wizard," which was produced from 1951 to 1964 and received a Peabody Award in 1954, Mr. Herbert turned television into an entertaining classroom. On a simple, workshop-like set, he demonstrated experiments using household items.

"He modeled how to predict and measure and analyze," Jacobs said. ". . . The show today might seem slow, but it was in-depth and forced you to think along. You were learning about the forces of nature."

A low-key, avuncular presence, Mr. Herbert encouraged children to duplicate experiments at home, said Jacobs, who recounted serving as a behind-the-scenes "science sidekick" to Mr. Herbert on "Mr. Wizard's World," which was shown on the Nickelodeon channel in the 1980s.

When Jacobs would reach for beakers and flasks, Mr. Herbert would remind him that science didn't require special tools.

"'You could use a mayonnaise jar for that,"' Jacobs recalled being chided by Mr. Herbert. "He tried to bust the image of scientists and that science wasn't just for special people and places."

By 1955, there were about 5,000 Mr. Wizard Science Clubs across the nation, with more than 100,000 members. And as "Mr. Wizard," Mr. Herbert was featured in an array of magazines, including TV Guide, Life, Time, Newsweek, Science Digest, Boy's Life, and even Glamour.

In explaining how he brought a sense of wonder to elementary scientific experiments, Mr. Herbert said in a 2004 interview with The New York Times that he "would perform the trick, as it were, to hook the kids, and then explain the science later.

"We thought we needed it to seem like magic to hook the audience, but then we realized that viewers would be engaged with just a simple scientific question, like, why do birds fly and not humans? A lot of scientists criticized us for using the words 'magic' and 'mystery' in the show's subtitle, but they came around eventually."

His work had a lasting impact.

"Over the years, Don has been personally responsible for more people going into the sciences than any other single person in this country," George Tressel, a National Science Foundation official, said in 1989. "I fully realize the number is virtually endless when I talk to scientists. They all say that Mr. Wizard taught them to think."

Mr. Herbert's place in television history was acknowledged by later stars. When "Late Night with David Letterman" debuted in 1982, Mr. Herbert was among the first-night guests.

Born in Waconia, Minn., Mr. Herbert was a 1940 graduate of LaCrosse State Teachers College.

As a B-24 bomber pilot, he flew 56 missions over Italy, Germany, and Yugoslavia and received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak-leaf clusters.

He worked as an actor, model, and radio writer before starting "Watch Mr. Wizard" in Chicago on NBC. The show moved to New York after several years.

Mr. Herbert leaves his second wife, Norma, and six children and stepchildren. A private funeral service was planned.

Material from the Los Angeles Times was used in this obituary.