Cover photo for James  Kurz's Obituary
James  Kurz Profile Photo
1945 James 2023

James Kurz

February 27, 1945 — June 11, 2023

James Brekke Kurz, Ph.D., a vibrant mover and doer in the Ladysmith community, has passed away at the age of 78. Having planted his garden and finished his firewood for the year, he drove out to Montana for a multi-week canoe trip to continue exploring the Missouri Breaks. Whether due to misfortune or miscalculation, he did not return.


His body was found in the Missouri River in Fergus County, Montana on June 11th. Since he was traveling alone, we will never know exactly what happened, but the evidence suggests that his campsite near Bull Creek was hit by a flash flood on the late afternoon of June 7th. Somehow, possibly while trying to secure his canoe in the storm, he was washed into the main river and drowned.


Jim was the third of six children, born in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, on Feb. 27, 1945, to parents Jerry and Annette (Brekke) Kurz. He graduated from John Edwards High School as valedictorian in 1963, where he excelled in baseball and basketball, and held school records in high jump and discus. He then went to college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he met his future wife Janet Thompson.


Jim graduated with a B.S. in Molecular Biology in 1967, and then served two years in the Peace Corps in Cali, Colombia with his wife Jan. Upon return, he earned a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where his son Nathan was born. He then did postdoctoral work at the University of Colorado in Denver, birthplace of his daughter Polly. From there he followed his lab group to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where he did medical research into cures for Cystic Fibrosis.


In 1985 the family moved to Ladysmith where he became a Professor at Mount Senario College. He taught Chemistry and Biology while his wife Jan taught math. After that, Jim was a father, adventurer, hunter, fisherman, gardener, logger, painter, handy man, writer, mentor, teacher, and coach. Throughout his life he was a considerable athlete, playing in softball leagues on his arrival to Ladysmith, sand volleyball in summer leagues and tournaments through his 60’s, and weekly basketball in a recreational league into his 70’s. Until his death he competed in local horseshoe and golf leagues.


Jim was a dedicated gardener, and a cornerstone of the Rusk County Farmers’ Market. Through hunting, fishing, and gardening, he was able to live very frugally while still donating time and money to numerous causes and nonprofits. He was an avid environmentalist and outdoorsman, enjoying hunting, fishing, and especially canoeing. He took solo trips by canoe from his backyard on the Flambeau River all the way to Montana and the middle of Ontario, Canada. He detailed these trips in three books — Out My Backyard: Canoeing West From Wisconsin (2009); We Were On The Missouri, 2005 (2007); and Navigating North: Canoeing To Ontario From Wisconsin (2012).


Jim was extremely active in so many local organizations, including KAMO (Kids and Mentors Outdoors), the Ice Age Trail Alliance, and Friends of the Library. He was proud to be quoted in the New York Times in 2020 for leading Get Out the Vote efforts as chair of the Rusk County Dems, and to have led the construction of the Anishinaabe Exhibit Building at the Rusk County Historical Museum. In his retirement he taught science courses at the North Cedar Academy, groomed and maintained the Sisters’ Farm trails for the Ladysmith Area Trail Association, and drove for Rusk County Community Transit. Most recently Jim spearheaded the Library Foundation’s effort to install solar power arrays at the Rusk County Community Library, the first public building in Ladysmith to have solar power.


Jim is survived by his son Nathan Kurz and partner Emily Cooper of Readsboro, Vermont; by his daughter Polly Kurz of Saint Ann, Missouri; by his ex-wife Janet (Thompson) Kurz of Ladysmith; by his brother Jordan of Minnesota; by his brother Jon and sister Ann both of Colorado; and by numerous nieces and nephews and cousins around the country and world. He will be missed.


There will be a memorial event in Ladysmith at a later date. Additionally, the family wishes to especially thank the Sheriff’s Department of Fergus County, Montana, for their kind and diligent investigation into the cause of Jim’s death.

To order memorial trees or send flowers to the family in memory of James Kurz, please visit our flower store.

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