For the past 15 years, Paul Koller’s voice was a regular feature at Hill-Murray High School hockey games.
Koller, or “Mr. Thursday” as he was known, sang the national anthem at every home game and was otherwise a fixture at Maplewood’s Aldrich Arena, home of his beloved Pioneers, whose successes and disappointments he followed for the better part of half a century.
But before that, he spent a career with 3M, lending a hand in the daring mission to repair the Skylab space station nearly five decades ago.
Koller died Nov. 15 at his assisted-living apartment in North St. Paul, surrounded by his children and their families. He was 94.
After college, Koller moved to Minnesota for a job with 3M, in its industrial tape lab. He stayed for the next 38 years. During that time, he worked on various special projects, including a small but valuable role in the 1973 Skylab mission to repair a heat shield that had been damaged during liftoff.
“If it wasn’t repaired, the Skylab module was going to overheat,” said his son, James Koller.
Running short on time and solutions, NASA put out a call for industrial tape specialists and other experts to devise ways to repair the solar shield, which protected the $2.5 billion orbiting laboratory from meteoroids and high temperatures. At 3M, Koller’s name was at the top of the list.
“When the chips were down, and they were asking people at 3M, ‘Who do we send?’ ‘Who do we talk to?’ ” James Koller recalled. “And 3M said, ‘Well the person you need to talk to is Paul Koller.’ ”
Koller was attending a son’s college graduation when he heard his name paged over the loudspeaker. It was all he could do to grab a couple boxes of experimental gold-backed tape — the kind used to repair airplane wings and able to withstand extreme temperatures and heavy winds — before catching a flight to Chicago, where a police escort whisked him to another plane bound for St. Louis.
The astronauts on the Skylab mission spent 28 days in orbit, the longest such space stay at the time, and landed back on Earth to a hero’s welcome. Koller, meanwhile, was one of the faceless many who worked behind the scenes to ensure the mission’s success.
Koller often spoke proudly of his humble beginnings, having grown up in Edgemont, a speck of a town in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Koller, who earned a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Detroit, married his wife of 60 years, Philomene, and later moved to Minnesota. They had seven children: five boys and two girls.
Helping others was his calling, Mary Koller said of her father. After retiring from 3M, he started volunteering wherever he could. That giving spirit eventually led him to Hill-Murray, where he worked in the attendance office and the athletics department, she said.
“People just got used to seeing him around, and he was only around on Thursdays,” Mary Koller said.
In 2013, the school honored him with the Lasallian award, given to faculty, staff and volunteers, both past and current, who “embody the charisms of our founding religious orders.”
Weeks after his death, a group of current hockey players showed up unexpectedly at his wake to honor “one of our greatest fans,” posing for a photo in front of a poster of Koller, dressed in his trademark green and white Pioneer sweater, a gift from a daughter-in-law. For the rest of the 2018-2019 season, the team will wear special helmet decals with his initials, “PK.”
Koller is survived by his brother James; children Paul, Mary, Karen, Peter, Joseph, James and Karl; 15 grandchildren and one great-grandson.
He is buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in North St. Paul.