David Dolak, 54, is a Hammond native living in Downer's Grove, Ill. He is a luthier (a maker of stringed instruments) and professor at Columbia College in Chicago. | Jeff Manes~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 25, 2013 6:41AM
“Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out of Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin’ trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.”
— Steve Goodman
I’ve interviewed a few Lutherans for this column, but David Dolak is my first luthier. He’s a maker of stringed instruments.
Dolak, 54, is a Hammond native living in Downer’s Grove, Ill. We met at Bernard Kleiman Joblink Learning Center in East Chicago, where he will teach steel workers how to make ukeleles and guitars this summer.
Since 1999, Dolak has been a professor at Columbia College in Chicago.
* * *
“My family lived in Robertsdale until I was 4, then moved to the Woodmar neighborhood of Hammond,” Dolak began.
Robertsdale is technically Hammond, correct?
“Yes, Robertsdale and Whiting are basically the same little enclave. There is a lot of Slovak heritage. All four of my grandparents came to this country from Slovakia around 1920. We lived right by George Lake. I used to go fishing there.”
Any other childhood memories?
“I used to walk to Porter Elementary School next to Purdue-Calumet. It was only a two-block walk. In seventh and eighth grades, I went to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and I graduated from Bishop Noll Institute the bicentennial year — 1976.”
Did you play sports for Noll?
“I was a field events guy on the track team — high jump and pole vault.”
Personal best in the pole vault?
“I went 13 feet a time or two. I was OK.”
“Like my father, I attended St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer. I did my grad work at Indiana University in Bloomington. I have a degree in environmental science. At the time, IU was one of the few schools in the country that offered a graduate degree in environmental science.
“I eventually got a job as a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory. I worked there almost eight years. There were budget cutbacks in my division and I was let go.”
“After working at several survival jobs, I was hired full time by Columbia College in Chicago, which is an art school. I teach science to nonscience majors. I teach a course on historical geology and one called ‘The Physics of Musical Instruments.’ My students at Columbia have to build a functioning instrument in the last four weeks of the semester, write an original song, and then they have to perform it the last day.
“Almost everyone who takes my class is a musician. The word is out, if you want to take a cool science course and you’re a musician, take my course.”
How or when did you get into making instruments?
“I learned to build instruments back in the late 1980s. I apprenticed under a man by the name of Osman Tilev. He was a guitar-violin maker originally from Turkey.”
“A friend of Osman’s was a man named Milan Opacich who was a well-known tamburitza maker. Milan passed away in January; he taught a course here at JobLink. Before he died, he recommended me to take his place.”
In the class you’ll teach here, steel workers will have their choice of making either a guitar or a uke.
“Yes, the ukelele has become very popular the last five or six years. It seems like every few decades the ukelele goes through a real popularity phase.”
At Columbia College, do your students make other instruments besides acoustic guitars and ukeleles?
“Oh, yeah. They make cellos, banjos, xylophones, harps, tongue drums, marimbas, violins, dulcimers ... .”
I assume that’s not a tommy gun inside the case.
“No, this is a parlor guitar I made. The back, sides and neck are made of mahogany, the bridge is rosewood, the fingerboard is ebony, and the top is spruce.”
Impressive piece of work. How much?
“At least $2,000. You’re looking at close to 140 hours worth of labor.
What instruments do you play?
“I started playing the violin when I was 8 and the guitar when I was 10. I can play just about anything with strings.
“Folk has always been my favorite type of music. At Columbia, I run a live music event once a month called Acoustic Kitchen. It’s like one of the old ’70s coffee houses.”
A few of your favorite guitarists?
“Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. My favorite classical guitarist would be Segovia. I got to see him when he turned 90. I really like artists such as Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, John Denver, James Taylor, Steve Goodman, John Prine ... . That whole genre — that’s my era.”
What about folk singers before your time such as Woody Guthrie or The Weavers?
“Oh, yeah. I actually got to meet Pete Seeger at a folk fest in Chicago. Pete’s still going strong at 93.”
“I’m an avid bicycler and have ridden across the country and around two of the Great Lakes. When I was at St. Joe, I’d ride my bike home to Hammond on the weekends.”
What route did you take?
“I’d take (Indiana) 114 to Morocco and then U.S. 41 straight north. Sometimes I’d take (Indiana) 231 and weave my way through DeMotte. There was much less development back in the ’70s.
“I also have a bicycle club at Columbia College. I’ll take a group of students who ride from the college to the Indiana Dunes National Park and camp out. I do love the dunes.”
David, you have such diverse interests.
“I also do my own research on the famous fern fossils in Mazon Creek. They are beautiful left and right fossil forms. It’s the world’s best known place for that.”
Where is Mazon Creek?
“Just off the Illinois River near Morris.”
Near the confluence of the Kankakee and Des Plaines rivers.
“That’s right. By the way, I was at The Field Museum for the February presentation of your documentary ‘Everglades of the North: The Story of the Grand Kankakee Marsh.’ ”
Really? What a coincidence.
“The Field Museum sent out an email regarding the film. I volunteer there on weekends by giving tours of some of the geology exhibits or talks about Sue.”
You refer to the famous Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.
“Yes, I also have a friend who has a little cottage in Momence, Ill. We canoe from the state line bridge to Momence.”
That would be an eight-mile paddle. The Momence Wetlands is my favorite section of the Kankakee River.
“That’s a nice stretch of river.”
You must enjoy your job at Columbia.
“I love it there, being with those kinds of students. Columbia lets me do my science and my music and art. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. Maybe getting laid off at Argonne was a benefit in disguise.”
* * *
Quite a guy, David Dolak. A scientist, musician, artisan, professor, hiker and biker who for three years worked on some nasty jobs at U.S. Steel.
He’s a real Renaissance Man who was raised near the refineries of Robertsdale.