James Edward Smrkovski

Deceased: 22 February 2024

Under: Obituary
James Edward Smrkovski

James Edward Smrkovski died very peacefully in his sleep February 22nd, 2024, the evening before his 85th birthday, in his Minneapolis, MN home surrounded by loving family. James is survived by his three daughters (Vesna, Rina, Vanda), three son-in-laws (Erik, Tom, Sid), two grandchildren (Tara, Atlas), two brothers (Lonnie, Lloyd), and countless friends and extended family around the world. He is preceded in death by his father (Vern), mother (Mildred), and his son (Vania).

James was the oldest of three sons, born in Pocahontas, Iowa where he grew up working very hard on his family's farm. When he was a child, he helped his uncle build an airplane, which he and his aviator uncle would ride together all over Iowa and Minnesota. When James was about 12, the Smrkovski's moved to a larger farm in Grand Meadow, Minnesota, where he continued to learn the value of the natural world and working with his hands. A precocious child, James was often asked by his middle school teachers to teach the class on days when teachers were absent.

James was a curious boy who dreamed of a bigger world. The summer before high school, he took out all the copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica from his local library and read them cover to cover. He continued his pursuit of knowledge throughout his high school career, where he graduated as Valedictorian. The summer after high school, James went solo-backpacking around Europe, first arriving in Switzerland with less than a dollar in his pocket. He slept his first night there at a bus stop, found work washing windows the next morning, and spent the rest of the summer eagerly working and traveling his way around Western Europe.

Upon returning to the USA in 1957, he began his university studies. He was offered two full scholarships for his bachelor's degree-one to study theater at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and one to study engineering at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul.

Loving a good challenge, James chose to accept the scholarship at the University of St. Thomas, where the stipulation was that he live with and tutor a brilliant deaf and blind student named John (Jack) Boyer through a scholarship from the Helen Keller Foundation. Born with a gift for language, James spent the summer learning Tactile Sign Language in order to communicate with Jack as they roomed together, ate together, swam together, studied together and attended class together. James would translate their professors' lectures by pressing hand signals into the palm of Jack's hands and also using a Teletouch. On October 14, 1957, the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a feature story about James and Jack and their unique arrangement, considered courageous and pioneering at the time.

In the last year of his bachelor's degree, James switched his major from engineering to what would become his lifelong passion: languages (emphasis on German). James received an honorary Woodrow Wilson Award and formal recognition from then-Senator Hubert Humphrey for his public service to the deaf-blind community, while Jack continued his engineering track and went on to enjoy an illustrious career as a software developer and later named a "Champion of Change" for advancing STEM by President Obama in 2012.

At the age of 22 following graduation, James won the Fulbright Scholarship to study at Georg August University in Goettingen, Germany, where he majored in German and minored in French and Russian. After this, he moved to Geneva, Switzerland for a year to teach English and French to German speakers, before moving to Oberursel, Germany for two years to teach German, French, and English at an international school.

In Germany, he met and married a vacationing French woman (Jacqueline). Their daughter Vesna was born in Bad Homburg, Germany in 1964 where they lived for three more years before moving to Minneapolis, where James received an NDEA Title IV Fellowship to begin his doctoral coursework in linguistics (emphasis on French phonology). Shortly after their move, they had their son Vania in 1968. The couple insisted that only French be spoken in the home, while their kids should learn English at school. In 1970 they moved their family to Tehran, Iran where the couple taught French and English at the Iranzamin International School of Tehran. While James was the director of TESL at the school, he also made time to study Farsi and Russian. In 1971 they moved to Saudi Arabia (Al Khobar and Ras Tanura) where James worked as a language specialist and consultant for Saudi Aramco and Saudi Arabian Airlines. He learned to read, write and speak Gulf Arabic at a conversational level while there, while also acting in several plays and musicals with other expats in the local community theater.

In 1976 the family moved back to Minneapolis. The marriage dissolved the same year and James moved back to Saudi Arabia. During his second stint in Saudi Arabia, James befriended a Thai woman (Rattana), whom he would marry and have two daughters (Rina, Vanda), raising them in Jeddah, Bangkok and Minneapolis. Despite the marriage dissolving in the mid-90s, James and his second wife would remain friends until the end of his life. Along with his children, she would eventually become one of his dedicated caretakers in his final years on earth when he needed 24/7 care at home.

In early autumn 1985, one month before his youngest child (Vanda) was born, James was accused by the Mabahith (Saudi secret police) of being a spy for Israel and Iran, being an arms smuggler, and making moonshine to sell to his expats friends. Those who know him would immediately understand how outrageous and comical the first two charges were. His Jeddah home was ransacked and he was disappeared in the middle of the night to spend 454 days in solitary confinement in a 6x3-ft cell of an underground Saudi prison complex. Once his captors realized that he was not a spy or weapons smuggler after all, the most serious charges were dropped and he was given a smaller charge (for homemade production and sale of moonshine-which he was totally guilty of, despite his wife constantly begging him to stop) and his release was signed by King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

It's important to know that James never lamented about his time in the secret prison to his kids, nor did he speak ill of his captors to them. He was always very matter-of-fact about the whole ordeal, seeing it as just another life experience. He made sure to say that, despite the darkness and uncertainty of it all, there were moments of hope and perseverance. To pass the time and keep himself from losing his mind, he would count to 1,000 in all his languages; to distract himself from the worst forms of torture inflicted on him on Interrogation Days (his genitals were electrocuted, his toenails pried off, and he'd get blindfolded and told that his head would be chopped off at the countdown to zero), he would scratch diary notes into cardboard with chicken bones; during weeks when he was being starved, he would resort to drinking his own urine for survival.

Eventually, the prison director (Captain Amri) would tell James how ridiculous the spying/weapons charges were and would often invite him out of his cell to enjoy tea, books, music and conversation in his office. Upon his release, Captain Amri told James that he was personally "very sorry" for what happened to him and that he was welcome to return to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia any time (he never returned).

Upon his release, James was flown to the USA to receive medical treatment at the Center for Victims of Torture in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Working with one of his brothers (who worked closely with the State Department), Amnesty International, Ted Kennedy and the author Betty Mahmoody (who wrote "Not without my Daughter"), James testified to Congress about his ordeal and helped bring to light the terrible human rights abuses perpetrated on foreign nationals in Saudi Arabia.

In an effort to process the trauma, James wrote an unpublished manuscript about his experiences. He entered a book deal with author William (Bill) Hoffer, who edited and published "Not Without My Daughter" and "Midnight Express," but after James finished writing his manuscript, he no longer had any desire to publish, anxious that his book would further aggravate tensions between the West and the Arab world. Writing the memoir was cathartic enough, he thought, and he could not imagine going on exhausting book tours and conforming to the will of demanding publishers and media personalities.

James Edward Smrkovski

James had a deep love and respect for the Middle East, and the last thing he wanted was to stoke any more anti-Arab/Muslim sentiment in the world. Despite his attempts to make peace with the past, James nonetheless developed PTSD and would suffer from recurring nightmares and insomnia for the rest of his life. (We are sure that he is now finally enjoying some good rest.)

In 1987, James moved to Bangkok, Thailand to be with his family and finally meet his newborn daughter. In 1989, the family moved to Lemars, Iowa for a year, then to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he made sure his two youngest daughters were exposed to a wide diversity of culture, language, cuisine and educational experiences. He would say good-night to his kids in several languages as he was closing the door with his trademark smirk, which was always a mix of warmth and mischief.

Despite settling back into the USA, James's curiosity and wanderlust overtook him, and in the early 90's (as his second marriage dissolved) he moved to Beijing, China where he became fluent in Mandarin. During his two and a half decades in China, he retraced the old Silk Road and wrote about his experiences in villages where the locals had never seen a Westerner but welcomed him as family. He became completely obsessed with and completed extensive research on the probable linguistic relationship between Chinese and Proto-Indo-European (which, for the non-linguist nerds out there, is the theorized parent tongue of all languages in the Indo-European language family), hoping to find the root relationships between all world languages (a theory which Thomas Jefferson, his intellectual hero, was also completely fascinated by). His extensive research and writings on these cognates have been captured in another manuscript that his daughters hope to piece together someday (his laptop with his most updated research was unfortunately stolen in 2020).

James's mind was an amazing spider's web, always making connections and revealing fascinating patterns. In any given conversation, he would likely point out the etymology of the words being spoken (root words from Greek, Latin, High German, Low German, Old English, Old French, Arawak, Dakota, etc.), which would then invariably lead him to connecting the topic to ancient mythology, theology, anthropology, mathematics, natural science, ancient and modern geopolitics, before inevitably cracking a cheeky joke about it all.

During his 85 years on earth, James taught himself to speak, read and write in multiple languages. Aside from his birth language (English), he was fluent in German, Swiss German, French, Swiss French, and Mandarin; he had a strong working knowledge of Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, Arabic, Farsi, Japanese, and Tactile Sign Language; he developed a basic knowledge of Thai, Croatian, Czech, Tibetan, Cantonese, Dakota, Lakota, and Cherokee.

Ever the Bohemian (his grandparents literally came from Bohemia, after all), his curious soul took him to over 40 countries. In his 20s, he was obsessed with Europe's antiquity and modernity; in his 30s and 40s he became entranced by the Arab and Persian world; in his 50s, 60s and 70s he became a passionate Sinophile, becoming fluent in Mandarin by age 60 and visiting every single province in China, as well as Inner Mongolia and Inner Tibet. He even became good friends with the brother-in-law of the last Emperor of China, who was his doctor in Beijing.

Those who traveled with James knew him to be an extraordinary tour guide and translator/interpreter-not to mention very skilled at the art of haggling at flea markets for you. He was quite infamous for getting in the back of a taxi in any given country and being able to connect with the driver in their native tongue to have an ebullient conversation with them about the culture and geopolitics of their homeland. Despite claiming to be an introvert, he easily connected with total strangers, often being invited to urban apartments, countryside villas, and remote villages all around the world. His children have witnessed him sitting next to total strangers-be it a homeless person, a university professor, a farmer or a CEO-and he would treat each person with the same respect and anthropological curiosity, asking of their background, the roots of their last name, their life experiences, and their honest opinion. Each person had something to teach James, and he saw Life Experience as the greatest teacher of all.

From his birth on February 23, 1939, James watched dictators rise and fall, stocks rise and crash, wars won and lost, countries divide and form. His earliest memory was falling off a kitchen table when he was two years old (1941) while his parents were listening to FDR announce on the radio that Pearl Harbor had just been attacked. He believed that in order to understand the present, we must understand how we got here by studying the past. If someone praised him for being "smart," he would always shrug his shoulders and say he actually knew "very little about things," but it just so happened that he knew "a lot more about things than most people ever care to learn."

In mid-2020, an illness forced James from Beijing back to Minneapolis where he spent his last years spending time with his toddler grandson, traveling on cruises with his family, attending the opera, visiting the St Paul Conservatory, snagging interesting finds at Goodwill, and gorging on durian and kombucha. He never entered a nursing home, as his family reorganized themselves to care for him 24/7 in his final years as his health declined. Although his mobility worsened, he never became bed-bound (his worst nightmare). He was surrounded by loved ones until his final breath at 9:30pm CST. His face still had his trademark smirk even prior to being cremated. Until the very end, he kept (almost) all of his hair and his extremely irreverent, very weird sense of humor.

We always thought he would live to be at least 95 (his mother lived to be 107 and was still driving at 97). But it seems he dipped out of the world before all hell could break loose with global warming, a possible world war, and what's going to be a crazy election year. He had a good run, it seems, having cheated death several times in his life: nearly drowning in the Rhone River in his early 20s, tortured in a Saudi prison, several car accidents, and countless infections that nearly killed him in the past few years (at one point in mid-2020, he survived with no food or water for three days in his Beijing apartment stuck to the floor hoping someone would rescue him-which luckily happened). James was a real tough farm boy and knew how to dust himself off each time he fell.

It still doesn't feel real that he's on the other side of the veil now. It still feels like we can call him up and ask him random history questions (to which he'd almost always know the answer), muse about current events, crack a droll joke, laugh at a hilarious meme, plan a road trip, or get into mischief together.

James was happiest when sitting in a circle of friends, old and new, having intellectual conversations as stimulating as the coffee or wine, deep into the night. A rather complicated man with a wandering spirit, he was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It was oftentimes frustrating to know and love him. Yet the lessons he taught us are beyond invaluable.

Like Socrates, he taught us to question everything, from religious zealotry to blind patriotism, from snake oil salesmen to the ingredients in store-bought food. He taught us to appreciate nature and wilderness. To see the world in shades of grey, never black and white. To be confident in who we are, not needing to follow any trend or crowd, and certainly not listen to idiots. To value independent thought and scientific inquiry. And to protest an unjust status quo (when his youngest daughter went to jail twice for civil disobedience when she was 17 to protest the impending American invasion of Iraq, he was genuinely proud of her and cheered her on).

James was as much a truth-seeker as he was a pleasure and thrill-seeker. He was a paradox, a puzzle and a poem all in one breath.

His wanderlust, curiosity, and wry sense of humor continue on in his children and all who knew him. He beamed with pride when his grandson (at age 3) taught himself the Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, and Thai alphabets from watching YouTube. He would be proud to know that his granddaughter Tara is using her Yale Degree in Cultural Anthropology to learn about and develop a relationship with the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

He would also be absolutely thrilled (and chuckling) to know that right after he passed, a young pretty nurse came to check on his body, before two more pretty young ladies from the funeral home took him away on a stretcher.

Think of him when you drink your next coffee at Caribou. Indulge extra hard when biting into a freshly-baked chocolate croissant. Make a toast to him when enjoying a good red wine paired with the most pungent of French cheeses.

Thank you for all that you inspired and instilled in us. For the good, the bad, the beautiful and the messy.

Until we meet again (au revoir, auf wiedersehen, hasta la vista, arrivederci,

…bon corage in your next great adventure in the non-physical world!

We love you, Daddy.

We miss you, Jim.

At his request there will be no funeral but there will be a private memorial with family and friends in the spring.

Instead of sending flowers, the family requests that people make donations to PBS News Station, the Hennepin County Public Library, or the MN Opera.

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