How Dean Regas Became One of the Nation’s Best-Known Astronomers

After a “pseudo-religious moment” gazing at stars in his twenties, Dean Regas charted a new course, helping to revive the 175-year-old Cincinnati Observatory.

More than three dozen people in puffy jackets and woolen scarves squeeze into tight rows of black folding chairs in a darkened room on this January weeknight. There’s a grade-school girl with a huge black bow in her hair. A middle-aged couple who’d been meaning to do this for years and finally found the time. College students. Retirees. A teen celebrating his 16th birthday. A sign at the front of the room proclaims the occasion: “The Winter Sky – Dean Regas.”

Illustration by Mario Wagner; photograph by Devyn Glista

A slim figure with short, dark hair and black-rimmed glasses, Regas enters just after 7 p.m. He carries no notes. The 46-year-old has spent thousands of hours tracing the winter sky over the last 20 years and long ago committed the names of the stars and constellations, as well as their ancient stories, to memory. He’s prepared to spend the entire evening sharing tales of what he dubs “The Winter Football,” the spheroid-shaped pattern of stars that sparkle in the Cincinnati sky on clear nights around the time of the NFL’s Super Bowl.

Like Bengals Super Bowl appearances, though, clear nights are rare during Cincinnati winters. He’ll keep his remarks brief tonight, because his greatest adversaries, the clouds, have receded. His all-star players are ready to shine. “You guys picked a good one,” Regas tells the fans of the heavens who have gathered under the silver domes at the Cincinnati Observatory Center in Mt. Lookout. The wannabe stargazers watch expectantly as he shares the good news.

Regas studies his audience, asking, “How many of you are first-time visitors?” He seems incredulous when most raise their hands. “Oh my! Where have you guys been?” He pauses. “We’ve been here for, well, with the telescope, it’s like almost 175 years!” They laugh. He’s kidding, but the reference to the longevity of the observatory and its telescopes is real.

John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, came to Cincinnati in 1843 to dedicate the observatory as “The Lighthouse of the Sky.” A year and a half later, on April 14, 1845, Regas’s distant astronomer predecessor, Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, proudly turned the 11-inch Merz & Mahler refractor toward the night sky and introduced Cincinnatians to celestial wonders. Tonight, Regas promises, he’s offering the same experience with the same refractor. It’s now the oldest telescope in public use in the western hemisphere.

In the back row, the middle-aged couple attending their much-delayed astronomy class exchange looks and shake their heads. What on earth took them so long to do this? Regas could ask himself the same question.

Over the last two decades, Dean Regas has become known as Cincinnati’s greatest astronomy enthusiast. He’s documented astronomical highlights in more than 150 Cincinnati Enquirer columns. He’s chased transits and eclipses from the desert in Arizona to the Mediterranean Sea near Greece to a Super 8 Motel parking lot in Knoxville, Tennessee. He makes about 100 media appearances a year discussing space trivia on NPR’s well-known Science Friday program, he writes about the history of observatories in Sky & Telescope Magazine, and he chats about meteor showers and lunar eclipses with radio hosts and TV meteorologists.

In December 2019, Regas wrapped up his ninth and final season as cohost of Star Gazers, a PBS program that airs on more than 100 stations across the country. And in 2017, he launched Looking Up, Cincinnati Public Radio’s first podcast separate from its on-air programming. He’s also published three books; a new expanded version of his 100 Things to See in the Night Sky is scheduled for release in June. And this year he’ll personally lead more than 150 talks at local schools, breweries, and retirement centers, along with conferences and national parks across the country, as part of his role as the Cincinnati Observatory’s outreach astronomer.

But the stars that brought Regas to astronomy didn’t align until adulthood, dividing his life into what he calls two stages: Before Astronomy and After Astronomy. The Columbus, Ohio, native arrived at Xavier University in 1992 with undetermined career plans. He tried his hand at communications, journalism, and math. History seemed to stick, so he trained to become a high school history teacher. “But then I did my student teaching and figured out I didn’t want to do that, either,” he says.

Always a fan of the outdoors, Regas found work as a Cincinnati Parks naturalist. In a story he tells often, he discovered his calling under a simulated night sky in the 20-seat Wolff Planetarium at Burnet Woods. He’d never taken an astronomy class and couldn’t even identify the North Star, but his boss asked him to give a star talk to a group of Girl Scouts, with a week to study up on the constellations. “It’s the first day of training and the lights are off, and they put the stars on the ceiling,” Regas recalled during a recent event at Northern Kentucky University. “It was like the stars started talking to me. I knew in five seconds that this was for me. It was like a pseudo-religious moment.”

Saturn completed his conversion to full-blown astronomy devotee, according to a 2016 column for Sky & Telescope. Among stacks of old textbooks in the parks building, Regas writes that he discovered a “dusty, 4.5-inch reflecting telescope in a wooden box. Soon I had semi-focused images of distant buildings, trees, and, at nightfall, the moon. I had my existential moon moment, one of awe and wonder.”

Then came Saturn. “When I swung the telescope toward it, entered it in the finder, and placed my eye to the eyepiece, I gasped,” he writes. “I was experiencing sunlight bouncing off an improbable planet almost a billion miles away and arriving in my eye and soul…. The moon was cool, but Saturn made me an astronomer.”

The oldest telescope in public use in the western hemisphere has been thrilling visitors to the Cincinnati Observatory Center for 175 years.

Photograph by Mary Strubbe

About the time Regas discovered astronomy, the Cincinnati Observatory was rebounding from a near-death experience. Years of neglect left the two buildings and their historic telescopes—a 16-inch Alvan Clark and Sons refractor built in 1904 and the 11-inch Merz & Mahler purchased in Munich, Bavaria, in 1842—in deplorable condition, says John Ventre, observatory historian. University of Cincinnati physics professor Paul Nohr had restored the scopes during the 1980s, but rumors later swirled that UC planned to sell the site to condo developers, dooming the observatory to the wrecking ball. That’s when Mt. Lookout neighbors, preservationists, and astronomers came together to have the place designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1998, they formed the nonprofit Cincinnati Observatory Center. The reinvented observatory shifted from an obsolete research facility under light-polluted skies to a highly relevant mission focused on education, says Craig Niemi, executive director since 2008.

The new mission created the need for an outreach educator, says Ventre, a board member and full-time volunteer at the time. The board considered hiring a PhD astronomer, but Ventre believed a teacher from the planetarium model—entertainer first, educator second—would be the best person to “excite the kids.” He saw a newspaper article on Regas and his planetarium experience at Burnet Woods, and knew he’d found what he was looking for. “He had charisma, a way of telling a story,” Ventre says.

Regas initially felt unsure of astronomy as a career path. His perspective changed when he went through Ventre’s volunteer training. “They had an unbelievable philosophy,” says Regas. “It was like, We have this telescope, and the philosophy was, Yeah, go ahead and move it. I was frightened. I thought, Are you crazy? This thing should be in a museum. They were like, Move it.” Regas enthusiastically embraced the approach, though he says he often woke up in the middle of the night following panicky nightmares that he’d broken an antique telescope.

By 2000 Regas had become the new nonprofit’s first full-time outreach educator. “I got a phone book and called every school in Hamilton County, Northern Kentucky, Clermont County, you name it,” he recalls. “I told them, ‘I’m Dean and I have a free astronomy program for you.’ ” School officials responded with hesitation, but Regas pressed on. “I’ve never been stopped by rejection,” he says.

Regas relied on his teaching background and handmade props for his classroom gigs. “I had a poster I made myself of Orion that I would unroll,” he says. “That would be my visual aid.” He still uses the moon model he created out of a soccer ball.

As the observatory launched a fund-raising campaign and a major renovation of the buildings in the early 2000s, board members determined they needed a face to sell the place to the public. Regas quickly emerged as the best candidate. Soon, the accidental astronomer began navigating a very intentional path toward becoming Cincinnati’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Greg Hand, longtime public relations administrator for the University of Cincinnati, trained Regas to make lists of upcoming astronomical events—from meteor showers to eclipses—and then call the news media to do interviews. At first, the media spots came sporadically. Then, in 2003, Mars moved within 34.6 million miles of Earth, bringing the best views of the red planet in 60,000 years and a prime opportunity for Regas and the observatory. “Everybody wanted to see Mars,” he says. “We tapped into that, and stuff took off here.” Observatory program participation soared from 1,500 in 1999 to more than 13,000 in 2003.

Regas proved adept at packaging the skies for public consumption. The Mars phenomenon inspired a Planet Day series, featuring programming on whatever planet was most visible at the time. “It was one of those things that got people’s attention,” Regas says. “They were like, Jupiter, I know what that is. I want to see that.” In 2008, the observatory passed 20,000 participants in combined on- and off-site programming. A record of more than 37,000 participants and 965 programs were hosted in 2019, which Regas credits to a combination of public excitement about the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and a yearlong campaign that sent him, volunteers, and telescopes to all 52 Cincinnati neighborhoods—from Avondale to Winton Hills—within 52 weeks.

Regas expanded his reach to national audiences through the PBS series Star Gazers. After the show’s longtime host, Jack Horkheimer, died in 2010, Regas applied to be his replacement. Producers invited him to do guest host appearances, then named him one of three permanent hosts for the one- and five-minute segments. When the third person dropped out, Regas and James Albury, a planetarium manager in Florida, cohosted, offering sky-watching tips amid cheesy graphics of the duo flying through space on hoverboards and sitting on the rings of Saturn.

Regas’s love for comedy, which he says could have been his calling if he hadn’t found the stars, influenced show topics. For instance, he pushed producers to try “The Long-Awaited Moon Joke Episode” in which he shared lunar one-liners. (Regas moon joke: What holds up the moon? Moon beams, of course.) Jokes aside, Albury sees himself as more comedy oriented than his cohost. “I was a little more silly on stage than he was,” Albury says. “He wasn’t rigid and solid and no fun. He would cut jokes…. But he was the straight man.”

“Dean is very into his work,” says Anna Hehman, who works with Regas at the observatory. “It blends with his life. It’s just in the fabric of who he is. He’s kind of quiet, and obviously very smart. He’s the coolest of the nerdy people I know.”

Meanwhile, Regas’s reputation as an astronomy expert got another boost when an editor from Adams Media called to ask him to write a book. He published Facts from Space, based on questions he’d heard during his observatory presentations, in 2016. He followed with 100 Things to See in the Night Sky and 100 Things to See in the Southern Night Sky. In 2017, Cincinnati Public Radio producer Kevin Reynolds tapped Regas to host the Looking Up podcast, hoping to snap up Cincinnati’s best-known stargazer before someone else did. Though Regas suggested a meteorologist as cohost, Reynolds convinced him that an “every person” partner would provide a better counter to his science expertise. That’s when Regas thought of his observatory coworker, Anna Hehman, and their friendly office banter.

“We’re yin and yang,” Hehman recalls during at an interview preceding a recording session at WVXU. “Sometimes I see it like siblings’ back-and-forth. I bug him a little bit. He explains things. He really comes alive when he’s doing that.” Over two-plus years and more than 60 episodes, Regas and Hehman have interviewed everyone from NASA astronaut Scott Kelly to Brian “Birdstuff” Teasley from the obscure 1990s band Man or Astro Man? to Paul Zaloom, who portrayed Beakman in the ’90s kids’ show Beakman’s World.

Any list of memorable podcast interviews also has to include the 2018 episode when Star Trek legend William Shatner challenged Regas to explain space-time. Shatner dismissed Regas’s first attempt as “completely confusing” and invited the astronomer to his live Taft Theatre performance to try again. That’s how Regas ended up on stage trying to decode the complicated concept for a frustrated Shatner. “Where on your résumé are you going to put Acted with William Shatner?” Hehman asks when Regas relates the story on the podcast a few weeks later.

Regas rarely talks about his personal life outside of astronomy. But Hehman did uncover a few details about his Before Astronomy childhood in Columbus during a 2017 podcast interview with his Greek-American parents. Stan and Becky Regas shared stories of Dean selling Jolly Rancher candy to elementary school classmates, publishing a newsletter about recycling for the neighborhood, and building his own half-pipe skateboard ramp. Hehman describes the interview as hysterical. “It was sweet to be able to ask them anything and him not being able to stop me,” she says.

Like Albury, Hehman sees herself as the comedy half of her partnership with Regas. “He’s very into his work,” she says. “It blends with his life. It’s just in the fabric of who he is. He’s kind of quiet, and obviously very smart. He’s the coolest of the nerdy people I know. That’s the greatest quote. He’s going to get so annoyed.” But still, she insists his over-the-top enthusiasm for astronomical events demonstrates “prototypical nerd behavior.” She laughs. “Somewhere deep down, he knows.”

The Cincinnati Observatory Center on the edge of Ault Park in Mt. Lookout.

Photograph by Keith Allen

Regas attributes any nerd tendencies to a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out) on rare astronomical occurrences such as Venus crossing in front of the sun, known as a transit, or the moon covering the disk of the sun in a total solar eclipse. He can cite his location for every significant astronomical event of the last two decades. He got his first glimpse of the Northern Lights in Newfoundland, Canada, in 2000, and he’s gaped at partial solar eclipses from a national park in Maine and the desert in Arizona.

But his greatest adventures come with the transits, starting with Venus in 2004. “There hadn’t been a transit of Venus since 1882, 122 years,” he says. “I was sure not going to miss it.” He traveled to the coast in New Hampshire for prime viewing, but woke to the astronomer’s nightmare of heavy fog. Regas was distraught as he and a friend sat in their car staring at the misty sky. When he couldn’t take it any longer, he excused himself from the vehicle and closed the door. “I just yelled at the ocean for a while,” he recalls.

In 2012, when Venus made a second transit across the sun before another 100-year hiatus, Regas took no chances, traveling to Arizona. “There was not a cloud in the sky,” he says. “No drama. It was actually a little boring.”

In between the two Venus episodes, Regas caught his first total solar eclipse, “the ultimate astronomical event,” on a boat in Greece in 2006. “It’s one of those moments where you’re watching in total disbelief what’s happening,” he says. “The sky turns this eerie shade of purple or silver. People can describe it. People can photograph or video it. But seeing it for yourself is like nothing else. It can’t be captured. It just has to be experienced.”

Regas still laments missing the experience of a rare transit of Mercury in May 2016, when he opted to stay in Cincinnati, where clouds blocked his view. “I was looking at weather maps and was going to drive as fast as I could to see it,” he says. “But there was nowhere to go within a 300-mile radius. I had to sit there and suffer.” He determined well in advance that he wouldn’t endure a similar fate when the Great American Solar Eclipse arrived in 2017. While 1,500 people gathered at the Cincinnati Observatory for the chance to see the moon cover 91 percent of the sun, Regas shared 100 percent totality with about 50 people in a field behind a Quality Inn in Franklin, Kentucky. “It’s like the heavens close up,” he recalls on a podcast episode. “This whoosh happens. There’s total blackness. Two minutes and 30 seconds when the sun is gone.”

Just after 8 p.m. at the observatory’s January astronomy class, stargazers file into the Mitchel Building, which houses the Merz & Mahler refractor. The girl with the black bow gasps as she looks up at the giant scope pointed toward the domed roof. “It’s the oldest scope in the world that you’re allowed to touch,” Regas says proudly. He gives the massive instrument a one-finger nudge to demonstrate its easy maneuverability. Then he tugs on a bull rope, engaging a pulley that slides open the huge dome’s metal shutter, creating a loud metallic clang.

Despite his celebrity and entertaining manner, Regas believes working with the telescopes is his most important role. “That’s something I realized kind of early on,” he says later. “They’re here to see the telescope and to see the sky. My job is to help them do that.”

As Regas rolls the observing platform into place, he tells the group he’ll train the scope on the moon. “It’s a little bright tonight,” he says. “But it’s cool.” The group follows his every move as he fusses with filters to give them the perfect view. At last, it’s just right. Regas turns to the 16-year-old celebrating his birthday and says, “Climb up and take a look.”

As the teen clambers up the steps, Regas calls out one last instruction. “Don’t hold back on your reaction.” The young man nods quickly, intent on reaching the scope. When he does, the light of the moon crosses his face and his mouth stretches into a broad grin. Regas watches with delight as the telescope and the sky work their magic, just as they have for the last 175 years. “Wow!” the teen says. “That’s so cool!”

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