Jim Kurck, 1953-2012

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Jim Kurck as best man at my wedding, June 1990

My old friend Jim passed away over the weekend, and I spent much of last night lying awake, thinking about him. Jim was a dancer, musician, computer geek, would-be physicist and a friendly fellow once you got past the initial defenses.

James Maxwell Kurck was born on 1 April 1953 and grew up in Fresno. He attended UC San Diego, then came north to UC Berkeley as a graduate student in physics. (Evidently Jim was named after James Clerk Maxwell, the famous mathematical physicist—no wonder he studied physics himself, though in the end he decided not to finish his Ph.D.) I first met Jim in the early 80s at Friday night international folkdancing. I first heard about Prairie Home Companion via Jim’s “Powdermilk Biscuits” and “Lake Wobegon Whippets” t-shirts. We became friends and eventually started playing music for dancing as well. Jim’s musical specialty was the drum. He played tupan (the large Bulgarian drum in the photo below) and also the dumbek. When he started taking dumbek lessons and was told “everything you’re doing is wrong,” he diligently practiced until he learned to do it right.

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Zagora performing at the Planina dance camp in the Santa Cruz mountains, 4 July 1986. From left: Laurie Edelman, David Reyna, Jim, me.

Spending time with Jim took work: I always spent the first ten minutes getting past his gruff exterior, after which time he lightened up and usually laughed a lot. By the time we said our farewells, I was always glad I had spent time with him.

Jim contracted Type I diabetes when he was nine years old and took insulin for the rest of his life; he used to tell me that if he had been born twenty years earlier he would already be dead. Indeed, he almost did die: one day in his forties he and his then-partner Joann were walking in Golden Gate Park when Jim collapsed. It was “sudden cardiac death with recovery,” a splendid euphemism meaning that Jim’s heart stopped and he was dead, but then his heart started again and he was alive. Two passing nurses helped get Jim to a hospital two blocks away, where he promptly underwent bypass surgery.

The diabetes also caused Jim eye and joint problems, but was usually able to participate in the dance and music he loved. As he grew older, though, he was ill more often and became unable to work full time. By his fifties, the disease wrecked Jim’s body to the point where he could hardly walk.

During his last years, Jim lived in Fresno, in the house where he grew up, all alone and far from his old friends in the Bay Area. I didn’t call him nearly as often as I should have. It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn before: don’t put off talking to a friend because you can call “any time,” because there may not be a next time. I hope Jim’s passing helps me learn the lesson for good.

Shalom chaver. Goodbye, my friend.

10 thoughts on “Jim Kurck, 1953-2012”

  1. David,
    You captured Jim very well. He could be very offputting at first, but had a wonderful sense of humor and fun. My first real memory of Jim was at Planina when he was still dating Jenny Lowood. He was wearing the Whippets T-shirt. We talked about Unix, of all things.

    I’m glad he had you in his life. I know making music with Zagora was one of his favorite things to do.


  2. Thanks very much for this remembrance of Jim who was a good friend in graduate school and afterwards. We will all miss him.

  3. Thank you so much for this. I just learned a few minutes ago that Jim had passed. I last saw him a few Sundays ago when I served as his taxi to deliver him to the Fresno Heart Hospital. I now understand why he has not returned my call.

    There are a group of us in Fresno who were friends of Jim’s since High School. To us he was always Captain Kirk. You are correct in that we didn’t always stay as close to Jim as we could or should have. We included Jim in the periodic sessions of The Fresno Gentlemens’ Traveling Poker Society. Those of you who knew Jim, can certainly imagine his poker style. Pretty much 3 parts esoteric humor and one part betting with gay abandon.

    If any one is involved with a service or memorial to mark Jim’s graceful impact on our lives, please let us know.

    Keith Pretzer

  4. I was one of Jim’s high school friends, and in fact lived only a few blocks away from him in Fresno. I met and became friends with him in the marching band in which he was an enthusiastic drummer. I remember Jim pretty much as he has already been described: a gruff exterior, but a great guy once you got through it.

    I saw Jim only infrequently after high school as we went our separate directions. (I now live in the SF Bay Area.) But I did occasionally speak with him when he returned to Fresno, and I last saw him last September at an informal 40th reunion of the “old gang” that Keith Pretzer hosted. I’m glad I had that chance to see him one last time.

    I too would like to be informed of any memorial service that might be in the planning for Jim.

    RIP, Jim.

    Stephen Clark

  5. I am also a high school friend of Jim’s. I had the privilege of being the Drum Major of the band. I won an award and had my name mis-spelled in the newspaper. This became a pet name that he always called me when we got together. Since we didn’t see him often there was always a few awkward minutes but ther majority of the time spent with our group here were jokes and laughter. I will always remeber him as A Beautiful Mind and a good friend.

  6. Thanks to all for the kind rememberance of Jim. I knew of Jim at Hoover High but we didn’t get to know each other until after High school. Yes, he did have that gruff exterior, but once passed that point, he soften right up. He had an infectious laugh, which was loud. We would cut up and belly laugh for awhile. Like David said at the beginning, there was a lesson to be learned. I too, moved away to Arizona, had lost contact. I wish I was here to be with him and the guys when The Fresno Gentlemens’ Traveling Poker Society would meet. Rest in peace, Jim, we will raise our mugs and quaff a dark one for our missing friend.

  7. Jim was a year ahead of me in high school and my brother Pete first introduced us…the last few times I saw Jim was at the poker table when The Fresno Gentlemen’s Travelling Poker Society got together for an evening of poker…discussion of just about anything under the sun, appetizers and rauncy humor. I moved to the Central Coast 5 yrs ago and fell out of the loop and didn’t stay in touch with a lot of my friends(something I am going to remedy), Jim’s passing has driven home that lesson…enjoy those you care about cause our time here is finite…coincidently, my wife and I were cleaning out our garage last week and she pulled out an old photo taken at one of our poker games…I will post to Facebook and send it to everyone listed above and they in turn to others…the thing I remember most about Jim was when we were playing poker and we were concentrating on our cards, he would say something totally off the wall and we would bust up laughing…I’m sure he did it to throw us off our strategy because he usually won the pot right after…RIP Jim…you are missed…

  8. When my brother gave me the terrible news,I tried Jim’s home phone
    number hoping that the news was false and that Jim would borrow the classic line,”the reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.”
    Alas,Jim’s answering machine has the bittersweet truth,”Memory
    full.”In our last long conversation,Jim recalled our verbal jousting
    way back when.Jim was my best man as well.He was second to none.

  9. I’m one of the people from panix.com (where, I believe, Jim took refuge when netcom died) who knew Jim only through his newsgroup postings. I liked them, and him, a lot, and will miss them and him.

  10. My memories of Jim Kurck

    I met Jim in September 1975 when I was entering Graduate School in Physics. He was perfectly fluent in Spanish, and when I met him his Spanish was far better than my English, so that helped me a lot. In those days my parents used to send me regularly a typical Comics magazine from Chile called “Condorito” (literally “small condor”). Jim enjoyed reading
    Condorito and he used to laugh a lot while reading the different Condorito stories. When my mother came to visit me at
    the end of my first year at Princeton, she brought with her a couple of bottles of Pisco (a chilean liquor made out of grapes),
    and a few times we made “pisco sour” which Jim became very fond of. When I went to the US for graduate school, I did not know how to drive. Soon I realized that a car was necessary, but I did not know anything about cars. Jim helped me choose a used car for the price I could afford, he inspected and tested the car, and helped me doing all the necessary paper work associated with the buying of the car. He also gave the first few driving lessons. After he left Princeton, I kept in touch with him from time to time. Sometimes I sent him a bunch of issues of “Condorito”. The last exchange of e-mails I had with him was at the end of February of 2010. On February 27, 2010, a huge earthquake stroke the central part of Chile. The very same day Jim wrote me: “The news channels here are full of reports of the earthquake in Chile.
    Many of the reports show wide-spread devastation in Santiago. Have you been affected? Do you have electric power? Are you even able to receive e-mail? There’s not much I can do from here except hold you in my heart.
    But I am doing that.” He was so relieved when I replied to his message.

    Jim was a wonderful person, caring and friendly. In spite of all his health problems he always kept his spirit up.
    It was sad to know of Jim’s passing away. As he told me in our last exchange of e-mails: There is not much I can
    do from here except hold Jim in my heart and in my memories, but I am doing that.

    Rafael Benguria
    (Santiago de Chile, September 30, 2012).

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