Friday, February 14, 2014

So, who was Henry Kolka, anyway?

Some weeks back, the Department of Geography and Anthropology was happy to announce our student scholarship winners (see earlier blog post). After that, a few of us in the department started wondering about the scholarships and who they are named after. It seemed strange to honor current students with awards named after people of whom we knew little. Who was this Henry Kolka and how did we end up with a scholarship named after him? It seemed shameful not to know. Well, one thing led to another, and Bob Barth's daughter found an obituary of Henry Kolka. And that led to other things. 

According to the obituary, Henry Kolka was a professor of geography at UW-Eau Claire from 1943 to his retirement in 1975. He passed away in 1991. No faculty currently in the department was here when Mr. Kolka was, so faculty have no stories of Mr. Kolka. But Yvonne, our secretary, does. She started in 1970 and remembers him as somebody who liked to bring her flowers. Let that be a lesson to me.

Back to the obituary, Mr. Kolka got his B.S. at UW-Stevens Point, his M.S. at UW-Madison, and was a teacher and principal at Berlin, Oxford, and Muscoda, WI before coming to Eau Claire. He was a member of Trout Unlimited and served on the Putnam Park Commission. Well, whuddya know, our student Nate Wick is a member of Trout Unlimited and is currently working with faculty member Cyril Wilson to create a mobile application to collect crowd-sourced data from from fly fishermen participating as citizen scientists to monitor invasive species on Drifltess Area streams.  And faculty members Sean Hartnett, Bob Barth and Christina Hupy have all served on the Putnam Park Commission. And Doug Faulkner has no idea what he owes Mr. Kolka!

The most fascinating thing in the obituary for me, however, is that Mr. Kolka's family immigrated from Estonia. My grandmother is Estonian. Mr. Kolka was born in 1904 in Pärnu. I visited Pärnu when we took a sabbatical in Finland in 2008-2009, and fondly remember this coastal town. (One of the world's most renowned conductors, Neeme Järvi, was born in Pärnu.) 

Map of Gulf of Riga, between
Latvia and Estonia.
Well, last week, we had a couple of Latvian students over to our house, and for some reason I told one of them, Kristijanis, of this geography professor who was born in Pärnu. When I said the name Kolka, he said that Kolka was in Latvia, and started telling me about the Livonians. Well, growing up in Ann Arbor, only 25 miles from Livonia, MI, I was fascinated. Being half Finnish, and learning that Livonians were Finnic, I was doubly fascinated. Being a geographer, I was infinitely fascinated. 

Livonian Flag
The town of Kolka is on the tip of the Cape of Kolka in the center of ancient Livonia; the Livonians are a Finnic society and one of Europe's last pagan societies to be converted to Christianity. Kristijanis said something about a wave of migrants traveling across the Gulf of Riga to Pärnu in Estonia, somewhere around the time Mr. Kolka was born. We got to wondering whether or not Henry Kolka was a Livonian. Was he? Did Mr. Kolka or his parents know Livonian? Sadly, the last native speaker of Livonian passed away in 2013, though I understand that Livonian is taught at the University of Latvia. 

The town of Kolka is also in the middle of the Slītere National Park, one of the oldest nature reserves in Baltic State, established in 2000, so it seems appropriate that Mr. Kolka was a conservationist. One way Mr. Kolka professionally distinguished himself was through his chairmanship of the Wisconsin State Scientific Preservation Council (1970-1975). According to The Milwaukee Journal of Sunday 7 April 1974, "the council's goal is to preserve typical areas and natural features in the four corners of the state for research of and teaching about what Wisconsin was like before land manipulations began." According to the same article, Mr. Kolka was proud of the fact that the Council managed to preserve 15,500 acres of natural areas between 1951 and 1974, with barely a budget.
Click here for pdf

It appears we owe Mr. Kolka much, and are thankful that we can carry on the traditions he has enabled. Mr. Kolka and the Wisconsin State Scientific Preservation Council were responsible for preserving 400 acres of the Tiffany Bottoms in Buffalo County as a state scientific area (see page 24 in Wisconsin Scientific Areas 1977). This is the very region in which our very own Dr. Doug Faulkner conducted his dissertation fieldwork and maintains active research.

 As we learn more about Mr. Kolka and his contributions to Wisconsin and to geography, we look forward to sharing it. For the time being, we are thankful that we can honor his memory and his work with the departmental scholarship of his name.

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