Astronomy Teacher Biography ... A Brief History of Tom


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My name is Tom Franke. The date of this editing is July 15, 2018 and I am watching the final of the FIFA World Cup. After a lengthy struggle with the district server and my laptop, techies have helped me figure out how to update my course and bring it to a more current standing. To start, I wish to introduce myself. Near the top of my "favorite things to do" list, is fishing. The ONLY think that I like more than fishing is catching fish, and I especially like going to Canada catch fish. And the place where I go fishing every summer (except the summer of 2018 because our oldest daughter got married) is at the KaBeeLo Lodge in northwest Ontario. I have enjoyed living in Minnesota since 1978 because it is close to Canada, and I think that a fishing trip to an outpost lake in the Canadian waters is about as good as it gets. This page exists to introduce me to you, and give you a better idea of who I am and why I teach.

family packer bears

I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and I hate the color purple. I am a diehard Packers/Bucks/Brewers/Badgers fan, even when my teams have losing seasons. Any negative comments about my teams, or foolish bragging about the ViQueens will result in a severe reduction of your grade. Brett Favre is gone, replaced by Aaron Rodgers. The favorite team of our family team lost in the NFC Conference Championships to the New York Giants on a VERY COLD day in January, 2008. I took my wife and daughters to their first game at Lambeau Field on that fateful day. It was -4F, farily windy, and full or promise when the Giants kicker missed a field goal at the end of regulation. Alas, Brett threw an interception, the game ended a short while later with a field goal for the Giants, and we went home frustrated and disappointed. It still hurts to think back on that lost opportunity.

packer bears 2011

As difficult as that play-off loss was, and then watching traitorous Brett Favre come up here to Minnesota, we all looked to Aaron Rogers, and he proved himself up to the task. We went to the 16th game of the 2010-11 season. The 10-3 win over da Bears sent the Packers to the play-offs. Aaron Rodgers on offense and Clay Matthews of defense led the team to victories over Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Chicago ... and suddenly the Packers went from the sixth seed to a Super Bowl participant. February 6, 2011 we decided it would be good for us as a family to head down to Fort Worth, Texas where Cathy's sister lived at the time. We blew a huge chunk of money on six tickets to the Super Bowl and hoped for a happy outcome in the games's score. What a fantastic day it was, and with Green Bay winning that game, it was almost surreal. This moment after the game was the happiest single moment in the life of our family.


The Super Bowl win brought incredible joy to the family and great pride in the team from all of us. Now that our daughters are shareholders in the team, and we are happy season ticket holders, we are all fully committed to the Green and the Gold, AND we are Cheeseheads With Attitude. No need for a broken dome or a stadium controversy, or a billion dollar indoor stadium with piped in sound. Outside is the way to watch football in December. Go Pack, Go.

stock holders

About that earlier comment about our oldest daughter, Mary getting maryed (married) to Tim on June 23, 2018. It was a perfect day, and beautiful ceremony, and acccompanied by the dual emotions of sadness for not being able to enjoy Mary in our home everyday and the joy of seeing her start her life with a man she has loved for five years. Here are just a couple of pictures of the momentous afternoon.




On to More or Less Serious Aspects of My Life :)

I graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1977 and entered the graduate school here at the University of Minnesota during the fall of 1978. My year between college and grad school was spent at Columbia Hospital in Milwaukee doing autopsies as a pathologist's assistant for $3.53/hour. I have enough stories to tell from that year to fill this entire course, but this is a course about stars and not a course about pathology. I did learn one thing from that year that has stuck with me, "Pathology is a dead-end job," and I wanted to do something more with my life. Also, I saw hospital administrators walk everywhere with a cup of coffee in their hand. I resolved never to be like those administrators, but now that I am in my sixties and consistently tired, I do not go anywhere in the building without my coffee. While in that hospital I met a PhD who was working on the disease, Lupus, and he encouraged me to apply for admission into the graduate school in Minnesota.

You see, my father was a doctor. He was a family physician and was loved dearly by his patients. He would come home in the evening from the hospital or his medical building office, eat dinner with us, and then go out on his housecalls. I learned how to drive while taking my dad to housecalls to visit his patients in their homes. I thought I wanted to be a doctor. However, I was not a serious student in high school, and not much more in college. I got a "D" in freshman Calculus and had to retake the course the following summer. I received a "C" in freshman Biology because my friend copied my paper without my knowledge and we both were accused to cheating. I was given a gift grade of a C- in Organic Chemistry in the first semester of my sophomore year, and I had to retake that class! I took my MCAT exams, but never prepared for them as I should have because there were too many other things to do that seemed more important than studying for the MCAT. When I received my MCAT scores a month after graduating from college and later ten out of ten letters of rejection from med school admission departments, I was convinced that I was not ever going to be a doctor. I also had no idea what I wanted to be. I just did not take anything in life too seriously, so here I was in a hospital, cleaning dirty glassware for the Chem labs and cutting up dead bodies to determine the cause of death. When Dr. Heim encouraged me try graduate school, I knew that I wanted to do something more than autopsies as a hospital deiner (the word is German for "slave.")

I took my GRE in June, applied to the University of Minnesota in July, was accepted in August, and drove up to Minneapolis in September, 1978 absolutely clueless of anything regarding where to live, much less how to find the school. Somehow I survived all of that. Upon entering the grad program at the U, I fell in love with a course about winter ecology and eventually earned my doctorate studying the winter survival strategies of a small terrestrial land snail. My thesis title is too long for this page, but I was very happy to complete my degree in 1987 and know a whole lot about a small snail which lives on the ground and avoids freezing all winter by producing glucose as an antifreeze. My grad school advisor, Dr. William Schmid, was instrumental in helping me achieve my degree and in multitasking very many simultaneous activities.

During my grad school years, I began a career as a swim club coach, and perhaps would have happily coached for the rest of my life were it not for the fears of parent board members firing me for an unknown reason. It was during a trip to visit my uncle Bill Albrecht in Pahala, Hawaii that my life was changed. Bill Albrecht was an accomplished mechanical engineer and an amateur astronomer for 75 years of his life. He lived over 20 of those years in Pahala, Hawaii (this is on the big island ... some 52 miles south of Hilo on the east side and not far from the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park). His backyard has been benchmarked by satellite triangulation, and his hobby was the study of variable stars. These stars pulsate in varying degrees of brightness over periods of hours to days, and he was ranked #3 in the world among variable star observers. He won an amateur astronomer of the year award in 1999 and was featured in the January, 1999 Sky & Telescope Magazine. In 2002 hewon the "Director's Award" from Janet Mattei (below and left) who was head of the American Association of Variable Star Observers. We visited with friends Steve O'Meara and Tina Helicker who were so very kind to my uncle, but also shared his love for Astronomy and Geology. He showed me the stars from his backyard telescopes, and gave me a tour of the Mauna Kea Observatory, and my love of the stars was rekindled. I had gone star-gazing with him as a child, but had little time to actually observe seriously.

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By the time my third trip to Hawaii was completed in 1991, I hurried home and re-entered grad school to get a master's degree in education so I could teach science like my uncle. My formal training is zoology, but there were no student teaching positions available in biology, so I jumped at the chance to teach Astronomy at Hopkins in the fall of 1992. I substitute taught there in 1993, and in the fall of 1994, the high school offered me a job teaching one 47 minute class. I advertised the course in the newspaper and 60 students took the course that following spring. By the fall of 1995, I was teaching 240 kids and the following year, 410. I had a fulltime teaching job, teaching my hobby. I purchased one of my Uncle Bill's telescopes (an 8" Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain reflecting telescope) and eventually traded it in for a 8" Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector. I added a 10" Meade later because looking up at the night sky through a telescope gave me my own window to the Universe. I was hooked. My Uncle Bill passed away in 2009 at the age of 93, but I hope to continue to provide to my students a passion for the night sky that he gave to me.

I have been a swimming coach since 1978, but as my daughters got a little older, I realized that I was investing more time in the lives of other kids than my own. It was time to retire, after 26 years, but no time seemed best. A unique opportunity was provided when two disabled athletes whom I had been coaching were selected to the USA Paralympic Swim Team. My wife and I were invited by Justin Zook, one of the swimmers who made the team, to fly over to Athens, Greece and watch him swim. After Athens, I retired as swim coach and left my coaching job absolutely fulfilled. To see a bit of this experience, go to Greece Paralympics - 2004.

Actually, I only retired from competitive club and high school coaching, but kept working with Anessa Kemna, a blind swimmer on the National Paralympic Swim Team, and occasionally with Justin when he came home from college. They encouraged me to get involved with the US Paralympic movement, so I took the training course and was made a member of the national coaching staff. My first international competition was in Manchester, England in May, 2007. To see some more recent pictues of these swimmers, please go to my Paralympic page. In September, 2008, I was invited to be a swimming coach for the US Paralympic Team in Beijing, China. Check out the link above.

tom cathy athens

I have since travelled to Rio de Janiero, Brazil multiple times, Eindhoven, Holland, Croatia, and trips all over Canada. In the summer of 2012, I was named one of two head coaches for the US National Team, and we took a great group of swimmers to London, England. Anna Eames, a graduate from Hopkins High School and Justin Zook were back in training, and I have re-entered the world of club coaching again because one of our daughters is swimming. The opportunities provided by the US Paralympic program and the athletes have given our daughters a global perspective and greatly enriched their lives. My family has been to Beijing, China and Amsterdam, Holland, and they have enjoyed summers when members of the US Paralympic Swim Team have lived with us, and have come to realize that we are NOT created equal, but all have incredible worth and value.

My Wife

In 1992, while I was learning how to become a teacher, I met a woman on a blind date in Cincinnati. Five days after I came home from that weekend date in November, 1992, we agreed to get married. The big day was August 20, 1994, and as I write this paragraph, we are in the 17th year of our marriage. I find myself overly involved with many different things, and I could not do any of them without my wife. I am so very thankful to the staff at Hopkins and NWC for the way they have treated my wife, but even more so to the students over the years of my teaching career for how they have treated my family. We have two little girls, Mary and Maggie. Mary was born prematurely, while Maggie waitied inside until the proper time. I have much to be thankful for, and my family is the focal point of my life. They have given up time with their dad so I could put this course together. I owe them a debt of gratitude and recommitment to love and cherish them. Below left is my family, wife Cathy and daughters Mary and Maggie with our close personal friend Mickey. To the right is Mary with Maggie at the county fair in Michigan. Mary was in sixth grade and Maggie in fourth at the time of their roller coaster ride. Below is a photo from our spring, 2013 family vacation. At some time, I may put the story of Mary's unusual, and VERY premature birth into this course, but not until the other work is done.

family at disney girls youth fair

hawaii family

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Since I am a happy father and thankful husband, more of the family are seen below. The girls are seen with birds in an aviary in Niagra Falls, Ontario and in South Lake, Texas during the summer of 2006.

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Finally, I had the most terrific experience as I took Mary, Maggie, and my dad up to Canada for a fishing trip at an outpost lake. Mary and Maggie are proudly showing their walleyes. By the way, if you click on the lodge site at KaBeeLo, you will find the picture of Maggie and her big walleye in the opening pictures that flip through durinig the introduction to the lodge. Maggie is pretty excited about her presence there, but not to be outdone, the lodge owners featured Mary's picture in the 2007 lodge brochure, so both girls are happy with their presence in the information about a great fishing outpost. I have taken the girls back up to KaBeeLo several times, and Mary (on the left and bottom of these four) caught a 44" northern on a 1/8# jig and minnow. Two years later, Maggie (on the right and middle of these four) caught a 43" northern on a spoon while trolling. As of the date of my writing (April, 2018) Mary is 22 and a senior at Colorado State and Maggie is nearing 20, and a sophomore at Wheaton College in Illinois.

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maggie northern

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star trails

The KaBeeLo Lodge has given me many spectacular nights of star-gazing as well. There is no place on planet Earth where I would rather be than up in northwest Ontario at the KaBeeLo Lodge.


One thing my uncle impressed upon me more than any other lesson was to help students develop a love for the sky. Astronomy is an exciting science and also the oldest, but it is fraught with many complicated mathematical formulae. One could get lost in the theoretical aspects of Astronomy and never develop a love for the sky. Indeed Nobel Prize winner Subramanyan Chandrasekhar never looked through a telescope. I want you to learn to love the sky first, then develop a sense of place in the Universe, and finally ask youself meaningful questions about the beginning, the present, and your purpose among such a vast Universe. You will be exposed to astrophysics, nuclear physics, and cosmology, but only in a manageable manner, and if you want to know more, then take an advanced Astronomy in college. I owe my uncle a debt of gratitude for instilling in me a genuine and profound love for the sky, and I hope to pass that love on to you.

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onizuka center black sand beach

Pictured above are a few memories of my trip to Hawaii with my Uncle Bill in July, 2002. Upper right shows me standing on the top of Mauna Kea with the Keck Telescopes directly behind me. To the left on top is me standing at the entrance to the Keck facility. Yes ... I am wearing a hat and winter fleece jacket ... in Hawaii. The weather atop Mauna Kea at 13,500 feet is often very cold, and so far above much of the Earth's atmosphere that the UV rays would damage by bald head and alter the genes in my skin. Below left finds me standing with Bill at the Onizuka Visitor Center at the 9000 foot level of Mauna Kea. Bill constructed a pair of telescope mounts which he is resting his hand upon. These are up there so amateurs can bring their portable telescopes and use the equatorial mounts for star-gazing. Below right shows Bill and I at the Black Sand Beach at Punalu'u. What a hollie I am, for I did not know enough to untuck my Hawaiian shirt like all of the locals. Bill, of course, knew this but did not tell me so I would stand out more as a visitor to the island.

Uncle Bill's wife passed away in 2001, and Bill returned to live in Milwaukee. That trip in 2002 was my last with my uncle to Hawaii. He passed away in May, 2009 and I sorely miss him still. He knew just how much he meant to me and of his profound influence in my life. I feel incredibly blessed.

I am so thankful for my teaching jobs at Hopkins and Northern Star Online. I truly love teaching. I am very aware that almost none of you will become professional astronomers. I had such a difficult time paying attention to my teachers and here I am now ... being one. I realize that you will not need to use the magnitude-distance formula to determine the distance to your neighbors porch light, Newton's formula for gravity to convince you that you cannot jump hard enough to escape the Earth, or Wein's Law to tell you that you don't want to hold molten steel in your hands. Most of what I have learned about Astronomy I learned because it is interesting to me. I like the pictures in the books and magazines. My curiosity was piqued by the images enough that I desired to learn why things look that way. I want to teach you as if you are me ... someone with a lousy attention span who hates anyone telling him what to do, and functions best under a deadline. I am trying to be more self-disciplined and more organized, so I hope you will learn from my mistakes and apply yourself sooner in life than your thirties, but for now, I just want you to love what you are about to see and learn.

Oh. We had a trip to the Black Hills in 2007 and then to Washington DC in March, 2008. To see what we saw as a family, go to: Black Hills or DC Trip 2008


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