Dan Zahner, who was studying to be a pilot, came up with an idea for a Boulder High class where students would build a two-seater sport airplane from a kit this fall.
The longtime Boulder High technology teacher expected about a dozen students to sign up for the new class, but instead ended up with close to 60 who registered. Colleague and friend Jessica Klauzer-Zimmerman used the class as an example of his strong connections with students and his enthusiasm for trying new, creative projects.
“He always wanted to do something new, to keep it fresh and exciting,” she said. “He was really passionate about teaching.”
Zahner, who was 58, died in a plane crash last week.
He was one of two people killed when their small plane crashed in a pasture in Nebraska on July 25. The single-engine plane was flying from Greeley to Iowa, according to reports, and rainy weather and low visibility may have been factors in the crash. Also killed was 80-year-old James Holland, of Fort Collins.
Zahner is survived by his mother; his wife, Dana Holland Zahner; and his grown son, Eli Zahner of Portland.
He graduated from the University of North Carolina with a bachelor’s degree in theater technical design and production in 1987. His work history included spending six months as a hacky sack and juggling performer in the U.S. Pavilion sports arena. He earned his teaching license from Denver’s Metro State University in 1999.
A 23-year teaching veteran, Zahner spent the past 18 years at Boulder High. He was instrumental in the creation of Boulder High’s modern-day shop, the Millennium Lab, along with starting and mentoring the school’s robotics team, The Landsharks.
“Dan truly loved his job and his students and deeply impacted the lives around him,” Boulder High Principal Alana Morales wrote in an email to the school community.
Bryce Irving, who graduated in May, was a robotics team captain and Zahner’s teaching assistant his senior year. Irving, who will attend the Colorado School of Mines in the fall, described Zahner as a kind person who was passionate about teaching design tech and robotics.
“He made his classroom a place where me and all of my robotics club friends felt accepted and included,” Irving wrote in an email. “He was one of my favorite teachers and a great person to be around.”
His mom and team organizer, Alanna Irving, said Zahner was a “vibrant, adventurous, passionate and deeply compassionate person” who advocated for all three of her children, even the one who wasn’t in robotics.
“Boulder High School will not be the same without Dan in the robotics lab,” she said.
Bill Coon, a longtime outside mentor for the robotics team, and his wife, Rebecca Coon, were close friends. She described Zahner as a nature lover who was “super creative, kind and generous.”
She said he was especially generous with his time, including taking robotics projects to community events to inspire younger students and show the creative side of engineering. Projects he created with his students included an 8-foot robotic hand pulling a chariot that was dubbed “Thing’ and two remote controlled shopping carts used as “art robots.”
“He very much wanted to do good by the world,” she said. “He would have some big wild dream and just start pursuing it with this optimism that it would work out.”
Klauzer-Zimmerman said Zahner was an important support for her as a teacher. They had adjoining classrooms and co-taught a robotics class, while her son was signed up to take his new aviation class.
“I always knew that I could count on him for anything,” she said.
As a robotics mentor, she added, he was all about giving students the basics and then stepping back to let them problem-solve and take on leadership roles.
“It’s a huge, huge loss,” she said.