Elmer “Joe” Koestner — the founding and longest-tenured director of the Dayton Museum of Natural History — died on Saturday in Daytona Beach, Fla., at the age of 96.
Koestner served as director of the museum from 1954 to 1986, and upon retiring, was named Director Emeritus.
A private graveside service for family and friends is scheduled for Thursday in Florida, according to Kristy Creel, senior manager of marketing and public relations for the Dayton Society of Natural History. Lohman Funeral Home is handling the burial service.
“The impact of his legacy — as well as his memorable personality — on our community is obvious by the number of people who still ask about him,” said Mark Meister, President and CEO of the DSNH, in a statement. “The fact is that everything we do today to advance the work of the society is a continuation of what he started nearly 60 years ago.”
Formerly known as The Dayton Museum of Natural History, the museum changed to the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in 1999 in recognition of Oscar Boonshoft.
Koestner joined the museum in 1949, when it was still part of the Dayton Public Library, and worked part-time as education director until 1954. He then left his job as a school teacher to become the museum’s director.
Koestner opened the Dayton Museum of Natural History on Ridge Avenue in 1958. He continued to teach museum classes, while overseeing the operations and development of the museum. Koestner also wrote a weekly column for the Dayton Daily News from 1954-60.
Jim MacMahon — the Dean of the College of Science at Utah State University — worked at the museum for nearly a decade starting in the mid-1950s while growing up in Dayton.
“He was very knowledgeable of plants and animals, and it rubbed off on me,” MacMahon said. “It set up my life. As a kid, I was interested in that stuff before I met him, but he helped me formalize it into a career that’s lasted this long.”
In 1970, Koestner received the Elsie D.B. Naumburg Award for outstanding museum professionals, and in 1986, he was presented with an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Dayton.
Born in Chatsworth, Ill., Koestner earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in zoology from the University of Illinois. After serving in the U.S. Navy, he came to Dayton in 1949 and taught science at Brookville High School.
“Joe was a wonderful human being, who inspired both kids and adults with his love of the natural sciences,” said William Patterson, a 50-plus year volunteer with the DSNH, in a release. “The museum was his whole life for many years, and I am not certain it would exist today if not for him.”
Memorial contributions can be made to the Nature Conservancy at www.nature.org.
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