Dan Koehler is a native of the Green Bay area in Wisconsin, having grown up on a dairy farm outside his hometown of Chilton. He has been an avid amateur astronomer since high school with a broad interest in deep sky objects, the solar system and “short-lived” phenomena like eclipses, meteor showers and comets. He is a veteran of one annular and six total solar eclipse expeditions on three continents, and an expedition in 2012 to view the transit of Venus from the Mt. Wilson Observatory. He served as an officer and board member for the Milwaukee Astronomical Society from 1982 through 1993 and was a four-term chairman of the North Central Region of the Astronomical League. Dan was the advertising sales manager for Astronomy magazine from 1995 to 2002, and was the executive producer of the PBS documentary “400 Years of the Telescope” and the companion planetarium program seen worldwide titled “Two Small Pieces of Glass” to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy in 2009.
His true passion, though, has centered on the Yerkes Observatory, formerly owned by the University of Chicago in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, about 35 miles from his home of 37 years in southern Waukesha County and now operated by the nonprofit Yerkes Future Foundation. After working as a volunteer in the 1980s, he was asked to become a part-time public tour guide at Yerkes in 1992, working occasional Saturday mornings by welcoming visitors to the facility, lecturing about its history, architecture, significance as the birthplace of modern astrophysics, and showing the Great Refractor - the world’s largest lens telescope. In 2010, Dan was asked to take over duties as a nighttime tour guide utilizing the Yerkes 24-inch Boller and Chivens 24-inch reflector. His very popular evening sky tours resulted in a dramatic increase in visitors to Yerkes and a rapid increase in tour revenues. In 2015, he was hired full-time as the first (and only) Director of Tours and Special Programs, a position he held until Yerkes was closed to public access by UChicago in October 2018. In those final three years, revenues from tours and special events skyrocketed over 300% to $292,000 annually, turning a profit for the tours division for the first time in the observatory’s 120-year history. Beginning in February 2016, the “hottest ticket on Geneva Lake” (and one of the hardest to get) was a $100 per person evening sky tour lasting 2-1/2 hours with the 40-inch refractor - then the third largest telescope in the world available for public access. In 2-1/2 years over 2,000 people had a chance to observe with the Great Refractor. The 40-inch tours (and Dan) were recognized for outstanding public programing in 2018 with the Astronomy Outreach Award, presented and sponsored by the AstronomyOutreach Network.
Dan began studying all facets of Yerkes’ founding, long history, unique architecture, engineering and the personalities that brought it to life and made it run in the early 1990s. He has spent thousands of hours in libraries and archives around the US and internationally including CalTech, Case Western Reserve University, the Philadelphia Free Library, University of Chicago Special Collections, the London Transit Museum, Chicago Historical Society, some twenty 19th century observatories that predate the construction of Yerkes and dozens of discussions and interviews. Today, Dan is considered a leading authority on the history of Yerkes and the lives of the three people responsible for its founding: George Ellery Hale, William Rainey Harper and Charles Tyson Yerkes, who feature prominently in his writings and public presentations.
Dan earned a BS degree from the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater in 1979, an MBA from Marquette University in 1987, and is currently working on completion of a History MA (public history concentration and museum studies) at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. His expected date of graduation is May 2022, a few weeks before his 65th birthday. In addition to his studies, Dan continues to work fulltime for Amazon Fulfillment and is making progress on completion of a book concerning the founding, early history and significance of Yerkes to the development of American astronomy and astrophysics titled “Noble Instrument” which he hopes to have published concurrent with his graduation in two years.
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