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Whether it’s for a Bohemian-style meal, the chance to catch the “big one” or visit exotic, far-away lands, Dr. Leonard Kouba is willing to travel.
Kouba just recently reunited with a group of six friends from Morton College, when he drove 50 miles one way from his home in Sycamore to a restaurant specializing in all things Czech like breaded pork tenderloin, roast duck, sauerkraut, dumplings and kolacky.
“I’m always willing to drive to go back to my roots for a Czech meal,” said Kouba, who attended Morton College from 1956 to 1958. “I never pass up a chance to go.”
Kouba, a geography professor at Northern Illinois University from 1966 to 1993 before retiring, has visited 119 different countries. He averages seven trips per year. He has learned not to sweat the small stuff, like lost luggage or missed connecting flights.
How about these for interesting travel adventures?
Well, there was the time Kouba was in Libya a few years ago and a revolution broke out.
“It was our third day there and we heard shooting near our hotel in Tripoli,” Kouba said. “We were warned not to leave the hotel. The revolution was starting in Libya. They evacuated us out – it was a little hairy there.”
Talk about hairy. There was the time when Kouba was in Uganda and came within 15 feet of a 400-pound male Silverback gorilla.
Or the time in 1998 when Kouba landed a 1,100-pound blue marlin offshore of Sao Tome and Principe, an insular country off the Central African coast.
“There was a lot of luck involved,” Kouba said. “The captain told me if the fish had sounded, it would have taken 14 hours. I couldn’t have lasted that long. It took two hours and it was the thrill of a lifetime.”
If travel is Kouba’s top passion, fishing certainly is 1-A. Kouba has fished in 38 countries. His Christmas card consists of his year’s record catches. With 181 line class records in the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, Kouba is fishing’s version of Wayne Gretzky.
“It’s something I’m very proud of,” Kouba said. ”It’s also something I enjoy. I try to beat records and get new ones.”
Kouba’s biggest freshwater catch came in 2007 when he pulled in a 200-pound Nile perch in Egypt. He has caught nine different freshwater species and 11 different saltwater species each weighing over 100 pounds.
“I just have a tremendous passion for fishing all kinds of fish,” Kouba said. “It started when I was 3 years old. My uncle’s father had a home in Fox Lake and he took me fishing there. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been hooked.”
For Kouba, the thrill is in the catch. He’s been a lifetime advocate of catch-and-release, way before it came in vogue.
The rain forests of Venezuela are among Kouba’s favorite fishing holes. He’s been there 33 times before former President Hugo Chavez started making it difficult for U.S. tourists.
“He shut down the best areas, particularly to Americans,” lamented Kouba, who has made 50 trips to South America and now puts Brazil ahead of Venezuela as that continent’s favorite country.
For travel purposes, Kouba is particularly enamored with Africa, a place he has visited 29 times.
“It all goes back as a small kid growing up in grade school,” Kouba recalled. “I had a fascination reading about travels to Africa. I read every book in our small library. My dad got me an atlas and I started planning trips all around the world.”
Africa was Kouba’s area of concentration while pursuing his master and doctoral degrees at Northern Illinois and Boston University, respectively. His first trip to Africa came in 1969. Kouba’s favorite regions of Africa are the east, south and central parts.
“I just love to go there,” Kouba said. “When it’s something you’ve studied intensely, it’s great to be able to go there. It’s fun to see how time has transpired and the changes made. The complexity of the continent is something I find amazing.”
Because of Kouba’s heritage, the Czech Republic holds a special place in his travels. He’ll stay with a cousin and see where his mother grew up and went to school. Kouba calls it “really, really neat.”
Kouba’s family moved from Chicago to Berwyn in 1952. His father was a three-term alderman in Berwyn. After graduating from Morton High School, Kouba and a group of his friends decided to enroll at Morton College.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” said Kouba, who also played the piano accordion for several local bands for 21 years before deciding to give it up because it interfered with travel. “You lived at home and got mom’s cooking. It seemed like the right thing to do.”
Mary Grant (geography), Robert Bergstrom (geology) and Lucile Schilling (English) were among Kouba’s favorite instructors at Morton College.
Kouba transferred to Northern Illinois and majored in Earth Science with an emphasis in geography. For someone who has been to over 100 countries, Kouba admitted to being directionless as far as a career path.
“How I became a professor was totally serendipitous,” Kouba said. “You know how you find that one professor that just seems to light you up? After I graduated with a B.S. (bachelor of science) from Northern, he encouraged me to go for a master’s degree in geography and then for a Ph.D.
“After I got my Ph.D., he called me and asked if I wanted a teaching position at Northern. I took it and decided I was to try it for a year. I stayed 27 years. It was just a series of events that just happened. There was no planning. I never had a plan for what I wanted to do or be in life.”
Kouba can’t grasp downgrading the importance of geography.
“I think geography is just necessary if you want to be an educated or worldly person,” Kouba said. “Most college students have such a limited understanding of the world. They have no concept of where Iraq is or knowing anything about it.”
Kouba was the first from his family to graduate from college. While he was able to transfer all his hours from Morton College to Northern Illinois, Kouba was two hours shy of earning his associate’s degree.
Later in life, Kouba felt it was important to receive his associate’s degree from Morton College. Even though he already had a bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees at the university level, Kouba decided to complete the educational cycle and came back to receive his associate’s degree from Morton College in the 1970s.
“I went back to accept my degree from Morton College,” Kouba said. “It was important and I was proud of it.”