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Charles Kurtak

July 31, 2014

Charles “Ray” Kurtak passed away peacefully at his home in Rovana on June 24, 2014. A week earlier, he had celebrated his 94th birthday, an occasion shared with family and many long-time friends.
Ray was born on June 14 (Flag Day), 1920 in Kettle Falls, the first of two sons to Anna and Mathias Kurtak. His fa¬ther was an immigrant from Yugoslavia and spent a long ca¬reer working for the Great Northern Railroad. While growing up in rural Washington, Ray spent summers on his grandparent’s farm near Chewelah. This setting inspired in him a life-long love for the outdoors, including hunting and fishing,that would continue for the rest of his life. He was also introduced to agri¬culture on the farm and cultivated a vegetable garden up until the last year of his life.
The family moved to Colville, where Ray attended high school. Ray graduated from the State College of Washington (now Washington State University) in 1942 with a degree in chemistry. The same year, he joined the U.S. Navy, graduating as an Ensign from the U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School at Columbia University in December, 1942. He saw active duty in the South Pacific Campaign, first serving on the U.S.S Gold Star, followed by a succession of other ships during the course of the war. He recalls nearly becoming a Japanese prisoner of war when their transport lost its propeller next to Japanese-occupied islands. According to Ray, “I could see the headlights of Japanese vehicles moving along the beach. Luckily another American transport came by and gave us a tow.”
Returning from the war in 1945, he met Virginia Hanson on a blind date in Spokane. They were married the same year and shared their lives for the following 60 years until Virginia’s passing in 2004.
His assignments took them to duty stations on the East and West Coast. He left active duty as a Lieutenant Commander, but kept reservist status until 1963. Back in civilian life, he took a position as a chemist/assayer for the Idaho Bureau of Mines in Moscow, Idaho. Here two sons, Dan and Joe were born to him and Virginia.
Ray was called back to active duty during the Korean Con¬flict and helped transport U.S. Marines to South Korea. As a Navy reservist, one of his memorable du¬ties was to transport supplies to Barrow, AK in support of drilling efforts by the Navy on Alaska’s North Slope. This effort would eventually lead to discovery of major oil deposits in northern Alaska.
Back in Idaho after Korea, Ray decided it was time to make a career move. He heard of opportunities for chemists with the U.S. Vanadium Corp. (USV) in Bishop, CA through friend Bob Carpenter. In 1954 he moved his family to Bishop where he began working for USV (later Union Carbide Corporation.) at the Pine Creek Tungsten Mine. He spent most of the next 32 years working at Pine Creek, with only a short sojourn at the Naval Weapons Center at Virginia Beach, VA. He retired in 1985 as Plant Superintendent. Throughout his retirement, he and Virginia were gracious hosts to the many former residents who came to visit them in the Rovana home they occupied for over 60 years.
His achievements at Pine Creek were many. He was a mem¬ber of a team, including George Brewer and John Sullivan, that de¬veloped a streamlined ammonium paratungstate (APT) process. This allowed the company to gain nearly 50% of the existing tungsten market and kept the operation alive. The re¬sulting process patent was issued in Ray’s name. He and co-worker Larry Hartzog developed a process to upgrade the mo¬lybdenum processed at the mine. That resulted in two addi¬tional patents in his name. He was first promoted to Chief Metallurgist and then Plant Superintendent in 1976.
According to Ray, “When I came to Pine Creek, the mill could process 50 tons per hour. By the time I retired, produc¬tion had doubled. Without the APT process, the operation would proba¬bly not have survived.”
He fell in love with the open spaces and recreational opportu¬nities provided by the Owens Valley. He took Virginia and sons Dan and Joe on many hunting and fishing trips into the Sierra high country and camping in the high desert. Hor¬ton Lake near Bishop was one of his favorite fishing destina¬tions and he was still making the trek up there into his early 80s. Ray was an avid deer hunter and to the surprise of many bagged a mule deer buck at age 93.
Ray and Virginia were very community-minded and took part in various youth organizations, including Girl and Boy Scouts. They were instrumental in starting the Pine Creek 4-H Club where they both became project leaders and mentors to the next generation. In addition, Ray served on the Bishop High School Board. He was also a master gardener, maintaining a vegetable garden in his backyard in Rovana into the last year of his life. His vine-ripened tomatoes were always a big hit with family and friends. His garden products won several awards at the Tri-County Fair.
He is survived by brother Robert Kurtak and sister-in-law Jutta of Bellvue; son Dan Kurtak and daughter-in-law Bar¬bara, Round Mountain, NV; son Joe Kurtak and daugh¬ter-in-law Trisha Herminghaus, Anchorage, AK; and grand¬children Teresa Kurtak and son-in-law Mike Irving, Pescadaro, CA, and Kathy Kurtak, Oakland, CA.
Ray made a difference in many of our lives as father, grand¬fa¬ther, mentor, and advisor to those of us following him on the road of life. We'll miss his opinions on life, political and other¬wise, his love for fishing and hunting, and his trapdoor mem¬ory regarding the properties of the elements in the Periodic Ta¬ble. He will be returned to the earth, next to wife Virginia, at the family plot at Jumpoff.

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