Nina Kanižaj, retired geography teacher, aged 81, died on 19 April 2009 in Varaždin, Croatia after a long illness.
She will be remembered as the initiator of astronomical activity in Varaždin in the 1970s, the founder of the astronomy group at a local primary school and an exceptional and tireless teacher and promoter of natural sciences. She made extraordinary efforts to prepare her students for competitions at the Pokret nauku mladima science fairs. She organised many visits of pupils from Varaždin to the Zagreb Observatory and was also active in the Astronomical Society of Varaždin.
Nina Kanižaj (née Bjelobrk) was born on 3 December 1928 in Zagreb, Croatia. She spent her early years in Gračac, where her father was a shopkeeper, and her mother (née Petrović) a teacher.
Her childhood passed in relative prosperity and as a merchant's child she learned to play piano and tennis. All this, however, ended with the onset of the World War II. Around 1943 the family moved from Gračac, first to Ogulin and then to Zagreb, where Nina continued her education. She studied piano at the Zagreb Music Academy but she had to discontinue her studies due to an illness (wrist inflammation). She graduated from the Pedagogical Academy as a geography teacher. Her first post was in Ogulin in the 1950s after which she moved first to Zagreb and then to Varaždin. She married Rudolf Kanižaj, also geography teacher, in 1951. Their son Nenad was born in 1953. Rudolf passed away in 1974, aged 51.
Nina Kanižaj started teaching geography in the 1960s at the 4th Primary School in Varaždin where in the 1970s she founded an astronomy group which she continued to lead until her retirement in 1988.
Many pupils born between the late 1950s and mid-1970s participated in the work of this astronomy group.
A number of them achieved exceptional results at the Pokret nauku mladima science fairs at all levels. At that time the Zagreb Observatory magazine Čovjek i svemir was very popular among students and teachers in Varaždin.
Not only did the first generations acquire theoretical knowledge in this astronomy group, but they also started their own astronomical observations and measurements using instruments they made.
Mrs. Kanižaj had an amazing talent to motivate students for astronomical activities, successfully organising small work-groups.
Regardless of whether it was a practical task, solving assignments or understanding astronomical phenomena, Mrs. Kanižaj conducted activities in her astronomy group with just the right measure of collaboration and competition between the participants.
The most advanced and talented students were particularly encouraged to continuously pass their knowledge and experience to younger students.
Mrs. Kanižaj had an important role the in foundation of the Astronomical Society of Varaždin in 1978. At that time astronomical activities on other primary and secondary schools in Varaždin were expanded and further developed, especially at the local grammar school where many of her students continued their education.
Nina Kanižaj significantly contributed to the popularisation and teaching of astronomy in Varaždin and the results of her work were felt further afield. Many of the participants in the astronomy group led by Nina Kanižaj completed natural sciences or technical studies, and a few of them have chosen physics, astronomy and astrophysics as their professional field of work.
In conclusion, Nina Kanižaj's personal qualities should also be mentioned: modesty combined with constant admiration and, dare we say, awe towards the Universe, the knowledge about it and the new astronomical discoveries.