Saturday, October 17, 2009

Jan Hlavac (September 8, 1933 - October 10, 2009)

When Jan told the story of immigrating from Prague, Czech Republic to America, he recalled the moon launch of 1969, saying, “I knew I’d made the right decision. These Americans could do anything!”
That crossing of Old World sensibility and new technology defined Jan Hlavac. Deeply inquisitive from a young age, Jan found himself fascinated with the world of science, creating rockets and tear gas as a preteen. As a child, he spent his summers in the country, running through the forests of Volyne. Always the entrepreneur, Jan smuggled black market goods across the border during the Communist era, sometimes traveling across mountains on foot, shouldering a pack full of coffee or cigarettes to sell.
It was freedom from Communism that drove Jan and Sasha’s decision to take two suitcases on a “ski-trip” to a neighboring safe country. Instead of hitting the slopes, they got passage to America. After three months as refugees in Austria they arrived in Moberly, MO.
It was to be only a stepping stone; a brief layover with his sister, Ata Munroe. But a job in the chemistry department at Banquet Foods led to buying a trailer a few months later. Then the birth of Lucy, followed by Suzi, and the purchase of their first house kept them there.
Two weeks ago, Jan climbed to the top of the bluffs overlooking Huzzah Creek in Southern Missouri where his children learned to swim in its waters. His curiosity piqued by a rock formation or a skittering reptile, he wove stories as he walked. That same night, he lay on the cool ground, surrounded by the banter of his children and grandchildren, looking at the sky and picking out constellations and fast moving satellites.
From an early age, the wooded trail or mountain road called to him. This past summer, he clambered over fallen trees while hiking around a lake over 10,000 feet in the Rockies. Every year, he anxiously awaited the chance to get to the cool mountains, loving the idea of surviving on solar power and well water.
This was Honza, Jan, Tati, Mr. Hlavac, our friend and technical advisor, who every week or so baked his own bread. This was the consummate scientist who tracked the weather via his own personal station and kept charts of which light bulbs burned out first. (No one could compete with his kids at a Science Fair.) He had the first laptop many of us of had ever seen and vanquished bridge opponents, scrupulously tracking every board.
Jan did what he loved to do and was always full of ideas. When faced with an obstacle, whether physical or mental, his ingenuity kicked in. Tired of renaming computer files? Just write a program to do it. A bandsaw too heavy to lift into its spot on the shelf? Design a pulley system to do it. With a little duct tape and rubber hosing, he could improve a process that took a host of engineers years to develop.
His house was a Czech home. Long car rides were punctuated with the songs of his youth. He never lost his accent. There was usually a bottle of brandy in the cabinet. The pragmatic way in which he approached almost ever task. The bags of dried mushrooms in the freezer and paintings of Prague in the hall. And, always, fish on Christmas Eve.
What do we miss of Jan? A slice of his bread as we wander through the kitchen? The way he saved a worn out shirt to ceremonially burn in Colorado? Who will “hold their thumbs” for us to have good luck or cut a tree from the backyard for Christmas? Who will baste the chicken wings (in two batches: normal & spicy)? He was the one who made the family picture every holiday and posted the photoshopped results on his website. We’ll miss his stories, his warm socks and green terry-cloth shorts that he wore even in the winter. But, mostly, we’ll just miss him.
Honzo, dekujeme za všechno a dobrou noc, náš príteli!
(Jan, thank you for everything and good night, our friend!)