Jurik, Zdenek Jurik

By Daniel Dunkle | Feb 16, 2017

You may have met Zdenek Jurik.

He lived in Camden for years, working as an engineer, tinkering in his spare time building guitars and taking care of beehives. You may even have tried his bees' honey.

If you met him you would likely notice his white beard, his brown fedora and his thick Czech accent. You may also have noticed a sense of focus and intensity in his eyes.

He died unexpectedly Jan. 27, leaving behind four adult children, seven grandchildren and a lot of good stories.

Zdenek was born and grew up in the former Czechoslovakia, which had been under Soviet control since the 1940s. In his youth he enjoyed wrestling, volleyball, yoga, ski-jumping and playing guitar in a rock band.

He became an engineer and faced pressure to join the Communist Party. When he and his wife resisted this, they were harassed and told they had no rights and their children would have no future.

Life was tough behind the Iron Curtain. Despite his job and the extra money he made from keeping 60 hives of bees, the family had trouble buying what they needed in the depressed economy. One had to stand in long lines for groceries and clothes.

Pollution from burning coal without any environmental control devices created acid rain that killed forests. When the pollution was severe, it affected his young daughter Iveta, who had been on medication for chronic illness since she was 2.

Zdenek decided in 1985 he wanted a new life for his family. He wanted them to have freedom and opportunity in the United States. So he brought home a beat-up Polish van and started rebuilding it, making a sleeping area for his family with an independent heating system.

He obtained the paperwork needed for a "vacation" to Yugoslavia and then used the pretext of the breaking-down van as a reason to travel back home to Czechoslovakia on a more direct route through Austria. Austria was free, and he managed to obtain a three-day transit visa for this daring drive to freedom.

He drove his family to the border, only to have a suspicious guard turn him away. Zdenek told The Courier back in 1986, "We saw him going to the phone and giving a description of the car to other stations."

After a night sleeping in the forest in the van, they drove the next day to another border crossing, where they were turned down again.

The next part in their story took great courage. To keep trying to escape meant risking being reported and possibly facing harsh punishment. It might have seemed a lesser risk to turn back, go home and do what the authorities wanted. Instead, Zdenek and his family drove all the next day to the last border crossing they could try. Their three-day transit visa would expire if this did not work.

And this time they were allowed to pass into Austria, to freedom.

They had left behind their home, family and belongings and they came to the United States, to Midcoast Maine. They arrived at Knox County Regional Airport.

How much Zdenek must have wanted this freedom, this better life. How much he must have appreciated it.

Zdenek worked hard to learn English, as did his wife, Hana, who died in 1994, and their children. He built his career in the area as an engineer and contributed to local projects, including the engineering for the resort and conference center at Point Lookout in Northport.

Zdenek would sometimes put his skills as an engineer to work for his furry friends. Notably, he built a house for a baby squirrel that one of his daughters brought home. This house had a tin roof that kept the weather out and various rooms with nuts in them. He also would show up at friends' houses with the squirrel in a basket or his breast pocket. He was trying to teach it to survive on its own, according to family members.

I met Zdenek's daughters, Hana and Iveta, when they came to work for the newspaper some years back. My brother-in-law, Jason, was working here, too, and he took a shine to Hana. How he got her to finally go out with him is a story for another day, but eventually it was time for Jason to meet Zdenek.

Jason remembers that when they met, Zdenek was holding a gun across his lap. Jason laughed nervously and Zdenek asked why he was laughing. Jason said, "My friend has that gun, and I know it's a BB gun."

Zdenek looked hard at the young man and said, "I'll pump it 10 times." After another awkward moment, he smiled and let Jason off the hook.

Not long after that, Jason and Hana were married and Zdenek became family.

Zdenek was an immigrant who added a lot to this community. He had a reputation for putting others first and he has left a legacy in his accomplished adult children that will be passed on to his grandchildren and long outlive him.

But, I think he might have liked us to end on a lighter note, so I'll conclude with a story his fellow engineer William Gartley told at the celebration of Zdenek's life held at Point Lookout.

As noted before, Zdenek was responsible for much of what would become the beautiful campus there at Point Lookout. At the time, he was working with Gartley doing engineering for a big MBNA project up there on the mountain.

Gartley said Zdenek was one of those people who would never say "no" to a challenge or question whether something could be done.

So one winter day, when no one else was particularly eager to go up on the mountain for a project, Zdenek said, "I can do it. I've got my skiis."

This was a time when MBNA had a lot of security on the mountain, trying to keep the press out.

Hours passed and Zdenek returned to the office cold, wet and tired, and he reported casually that he had gotten the job done.

Gartley had just been on the phone with MBNA security.

They said, "We've been chasing this guy on skiis all over the mountain! When we finally caught up with him and asked for his ID, he said, 'Bond, James Bond.'"

So when next you raise your glass, perhaps you'll toast Zdenek, as we all did the other night. Here's to the only man I know who could compete with James Bond.

Some information for this column came from Margaret Hollard's story, "Escaping the Iron Curtain, Free in Rockport," published Feb. 13, 1986, in The Courier-Gazette and from information provided by Sue Thurston of South Thomaston and various family and friends.

Daniel Dunkle is editor of The Courier-Gazette. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, two children and two cats. Email him your questions and memories of the Rockland area at ddunkle@villagesoup.com or snail mail: 91 Camden St., Suite 403, Rockland, ME 04841. Follow him on Twitter @DanDunkle.

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