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Microbiology professor also paints and dances

'Breaking Light Dunes' By Charlie Capek

"Breaking Light Dunes," By Charlie Capek

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Updated: October 16, 2013 6:13AM



Scotty Lundegaard: (finishing supper) “May I be excused?”

Jerry Lundegaard: “Ya done, there?”

Scotty Lundegaard: “Yah. Can I go out?”

Jean Lundegaard: “Where ya goin’?”

Scotty Lundegaard: “Just to McDonalds.”

Jerry Lundegaard: “Be back at 9:30.”

Wade Gustafson: “He just ate — he didn’t even finish! He’s goin’ to McDonalds instead of finishin’ here.”

Jean Lundegaard: “He sees his friends there. It’s OK.”

Wade Gustafson: “It’s OK, MAC-Donalds. Heh. Whaddya think they do there? They don’t drink milkshakes, I assure you.”

— from the 1996 film “Fargo”

Charlie Capek lives in Schererville and teaches the laboratory part of a food microbiology course at Purdue Calumet in Hammond.

Capek also is a tremendous artist who enjoys ballroom dancing. Being ambidextrous, he can paint, write or throw a baseball with either hand.

Our interview took place at the Lake County Public Library on U.S. 30 in Merrillville.

***

“I come from a rural area in southeastern Minnesota,” Capek began. “When I left, there were only four stop lights in Filmore County.”

Did you have scads of Scandinavian folks for neighbors in Filmore County?

“Yes; Swedes, Germans, Norwegians... . In Filmore County we still celebrate Syttende Mai (May 17) which is Norway’s Constitution Day. During the festivities, ethnic dishes such as lutefisk are served. Our Old Order Amish are also a significant part of the population and valued craftsmen.”

Lutefisk?

“Lutefisk is cod that is ‘cooked’ by soaking it in lye or sodium hydroxide. Molecularly, it changes the proteins. After the cod has been soaked in lye, you rinse it. My aunt had a good phrase after she tried lutefisk for the first time.”

What was that?

“‘It tasted just as bad coming up as it did going down.’”

What ethnicity is Capek?

“Czechoslovakian. The surname Capek is about as common in the Czech Republic as Smith or Jones is here.”

Other memories of Minnesota?

“My brother and I used to spend the summers working on my uncle’s dairy farm. What a blast we had when we were kids. The river fishing in Filmore County is phenomenal. It’s known for its trout. We enjoyed inner tubing in the Root River. There were underground caves where you could go spelunking.”

High school?

“I went to a couple of different high schools. I won’t mention their names, but one of them is one of the recognized ‘hockey factories.’ Here in Indiana, it’s all about the high school basketball tournaments. Let me tell you, come to Minnesota during the state hockey tournaments. It’s Hoosier Hysteria on steroids.”

Your parents?

“My mom was a research assistant at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and a long-time librarian. My dad was a professor in linguistics and taught courses such as Old English and Old High Dutch.

“With our parents’ encouragement of reading, my brother and I boosted the book circulation significantly at every library we used. One of the things I really appreciate about this area is the terrific libraries.”

College?

“My undergraduate degree is from the University of Minnesota. I have my master’s from Purdue Cal. I majored in biology.”

Your art?

“The art is something I have been doing since I was 11. I do some portraiture, but the majority of my work is landscapes. This particular painting is a combination of woodcut printing and watercolor painting. I’ve incorporated the wood grain pattern as part of the overall painting design, and have the woodcut layers as a skeleton. The watercolor ‘fleshes out’ the rest of the painting. The contrast between the opacity and bare-bones effect of the woodcut layers, and the brilliance of the watercolor, which can range from transparent to near-opaque, really adds to the painting’s three-dimensional effect.”

I’ve never seen anything like that.

“I may have invented a new art form by incorporating the wood grain pattern into a watercolor painting.

“My portrait of horses, ‘Brown-Collar Workers,” will be exhibited in the 64 Arts National Exhibition at the Buchanan Center for the Arts in Monmouth, Ill this month. ‘Heartland Evening’ will be in the Faber Birren National Color Award Show at the Stamford Art Association in Connecticut. ‘Wild Child,’ my portrait of a young girl with her pet rooster, won Best of Show in a national exhibition at the Salmagundi Club in New York several years ago.”

Very impressive. Ballroom dancing?

“I started ballroom dancing about 10 years ago and I wish I would’ve started 10 years before that. One of the great things about Northwest Indiana is the number of really good dance studios and ballroom dance teachers. Tim Dustin teaches classes at the Lincoln Center in Highland. Even if you think you have two left feet, Tim is a great teacher and it’s marvelous fun.”

Food microbiology?

“It’s a really well-designed class. Each week, we go through a particular exercise. We actually have the students go out and find examples of fresh, perishable foods that they can test for particular pathogens as well as spoilage microorganisms. By the end of the course, the students are able to do their own mini scientific Consumer Reports testing of food samples.”

What kinds of jobs would your students get in that particular field?

“Anything to do with quality control, health departments, testing laboratories... We want our food to be safe. You’re familiar with the term ‘shelf life.’ That’s very important to a lot of the testing we do.

“You remember the case a couple of years ago where the Peanut Corporation of America had areas where birds could get inside the roofs. The facility wasn’t sealed off properly from the outdoors. It turned out that they shipped out a lot of peanut butter that contained salmonella. A lot of peanut butter paste went into products that were shipped to schools and nursing homes. Deaths occurred.”

Pigeon poop in your peanut butter will do that.

“Exactly.”

Charlie, on the other hand, when I first started hearing adults use the word “Sal Monella,” I figured they were referring to a member of the Italian side of my family. I mean, my brother and I were known to eat Easter eggs after they’d sat next to the heat register for two weeks. We never got sick.

When I was in grade school, I remember one kid who had something called asthma. Nowadays, every kid has asthma. It’s my hypothesis that today’s youth don’t spend enough time outdoors building up immunities.

“That’s been documented to be true. As far as building up a healthy immune system, yes indeed, early exposure to dirt is a good thing.”

***

An interesting and talented man, Charlie Capek.



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