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Jiri (George) Krupicka

Geology professor, labour camp survivor, author, adventurer, humanist. Born on May 5, 1913, in Prague, present-day Czech Republic; died on April 24, 2014, in Edmonton, of pneumonia, aged 100.

On a bitterly cold February night when I was 9, my grandfather and I stood on a gravel road somewhere outside Edmonton. Far from the lights of the city, we looked up at the bright stars above.

"See that red star in Orion's shoulder?" he asked me. "That's Betelgeuse. The name comes from Arabic. A thousand years ago, Baghdad was the world's leading centre for astronomy. Remember that; it will help you in life."

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For George Krupicka, learning and understanding were touchstones on a long journey through life. In 1988, at the age of 75, he retired from teaching geology at the University of Alberta, and began writing.

Drawing on his extraordinarily broad knowledge of the natural sciences and the humanities, he wrote prodigiously – about the world, the human condition, and the power of reason. Between 1994 and 2008 he published seven books in Czech, his native tongue. His 1994 work, Renaissance of Reason, was then-Czech president Vaclav Havel's pick for book of the year.

Although George was far too proud to flaunt it, his success as a writer late in life gave him great satisfaction. He had chosen that path some 50 years earlier, with tragic results.

In 1949, he was a young professor at Charles University in Prague. As the Iron Curtain descended and the Cold War set in, he felt that he could not stay silent. He wrote a manuscript denouncing the nuclear arms race and tried to smuggle it across the closed border to Western Europe. He was caught – and served 10 years in prison for treason. His wife, Ada, was left alone to raise their young daughters, Helena and Irena.

For several of his years as a political prisoner, George mined uranium for the Soviet nuclear program in forced-labour camps. The 12-hour shifts of hauling radioactive ore were brutal. But he organized learning circles for his fellow prisoners, keeping their spirits up with lectures on topics ranging from ancient Roman history to natural selection.

In August, 1968, when a Soviet-led invasion put an end to political liberalization in his homeland, George and his family went into exile. George and Ada moved to Edmonton and were later joined by their daughters and their families.

In Canada, George found a new life that suited him well. During the long winters, he would walk five kilometres from home every day to the university, where he was a much-loved teacher. In summer, he would roam Devon and Ellesmere islands in the High Arctic on field research trips. George was a constant adventurer. He loved vast open spaces and the wilderness, places where he could walk all day under the blue sky, or haul his muscled, wiry frame up some jagged peak to see what lay beyond.

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George's family and friends remember his indomitable optimism and his quirky sense of humour. Several years ago, the homemade Christmas card that he sent out featured a photo of a Precambrian rock and the inscription, "Four billion years!"

Sometimes, on clear nights, I gaze up at the sky with my two young sons, Jacob and Oliver. I tell them the names of the stars that my grandfather taught me. I can feel him beside me, his strong hand resting on my shoulder, smiling in wonder at this place he has left behind.

Martin Horak is one of George's two grandsons.

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