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The Engineer Turned Artist

Hank and Carolyn Van Calcar

We regularly meet fascinating people in our work, but few who live their lives in so many unique ways as Hank Van Calcar. From a career as an electrical engineer to an expert carver, Hank applies inventiveness and skill to everything he does. Some of that ingenuity was passed on to him from his father who, as a young man immigrating from Holland to the U.S. in 1929, lost everything in the Great Depression and had to start over. That spirit, creativity and determination have helped guide Hank through his life.

As an electrical engineer, he helped pioneer a control system for spacecraft and the first dynamic positioning system for drill ships, among other notable achievements. He was able to retire at age 58, and since then has filled his time with hobbies ranging from big game hunting to fly fishing, gun-making and taxidermy, and has become a renowned carver of Northwest Native American art with the distinguished accomplishment of creating one of the world’s first round bentwood boxes. With Carolyn, his wife of 53 years, by his side, Hank lives a life of adventure highlighted by their annual four-month trip to Alaska on a 39-foot Nordic Tug.

Your father had quite an inauspicious beginning to his life in America. Tell me about that.

My dad was a preacher’s son, but he always wanted to be a farmer. At age 16 he traveled to America to earn money to buy a dairy farm. He came here three times over 10 years and put all his money in the bank. While returning on the boat to take up permanent residence in the states, the Great Depression hit. When he arrived, the banks were closed. He lost all his money and had to start over from scratch.

And on this particular trip he had a new bride with him as well?

Yes. After his third time to the States, he went back to Holland specifically to find a Dutch wife so he could settle permanently here. He met my mom and six weeks later, he had her on the boat and never went back.

He met your mother and six weeks later they were married?

Yes. My mother worked in a drugstore. One day, my father and his brother were sitting there playing Chinese checkers and this skinny, tall gal came in to deliver some medication. Dad took one look at her and said, “That’s the one I’m going to marry.” Six weeks later he had her on the boat.

And they stayed happily married the rest of their lives.

They did. They had four children: my two brothers, my sister and me.

Did losing all his money in the Depression make him bitter or anxious?

No. He was a guy who could have made it in whatever he wanted to do. To him, it was just another wrinkle in life.

He did get his farm. I was born on the first one in New York state. When I was about five, we had a drive-in dairy farm in Modesto, California where people drove in with empty bottles for filling.

For some reason, Oregon fascinated my father. One day he read an ad in the paper for a farm in Oregon that had everything he wanted. So, he got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and drove all the way to Sumner, Oregon. He saw the farm, was there for three hours, signed on the dotted line and drove all the way back to Modesto. He was so excited. I was basically raised on that dairy farm.

Everything was done by horses. There were no tractors. When we first got there, we had six cows. When I left for college, we were milking 42 cows.

When it was your turn to milk the cows, you got up at 4 o’clock in the morning. I didn’t like the milking part. I got out of that. I was a fix-it person—anything that broke, I fixed. Anything that had to be butchered was my job. I harvested the deer, or I was busy splitting fence posts, etc. There was always work to be done.

Whenever I had spare time, I was up in the woods hunting pigeons or deer. Later I wanted to be a gunsmith. I talked to a local gunsmith about it. He said forget that, get yourself an education and let it be your hobby. I built a whole bunch of beautiful guns; they’re the ones I hunt with to this day.

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And you did not become a gunsmith for your career.

No, I took the advice, went to college and became an electrical engineer. If I had to write my own job description of what I wanted to do, I had it at Space Technology Laboratory in Los Angeles. I worked on ballistic missiles, and later I built a control system for spacecraft. I had the best job in the company.

We said when we moved to LA that we didn’t want to raise our kids there. We decided we’d spend five years there then return to the Northwest. But I was so deeply involved in building the control system, I had to wait until I finished the job and that took an extra year.

I left about the time that spacecraft was going into system tests. The design was all done, so I could leave in good conscience. I still remember to this day, a year after I left, – it was 2 o’clock in the morning – the phone rings, and it was my boss. He said, “You remember that system you worked on? It worked just like you said it would.” Everything we did was the first time it had been done, and miraculously everything worked on that spacecraft.

The day I left California was the worst day of my life because I was losing the absolute perfect job.

But you continued your career here?

Yes, we moved to Seattle and I worked for Honeywell in the Marine System Division. I worked on building the first dynamic positioning system for drill ships using a computer. This allowed ships to drill without anchors.

What was it about engineering that you loved so much?

Well, in my upbringing, “can’t” was not a word that existed. My mother in particular used to say, “There isn’t anything you can’t do if you put your mind to it.” It was the same way in engineering. There is no such thing as a non-solution to a problem. You just have to figure it out.

I never had a dull day in my life. In my engineering career, every day was exciting because I was doing something new and different.

For as much as you loved it, you also retired at a fairly young age.

I retired in 1993 when I was 58. I’m 78 now, so I’ve been retired for 20 years. I walked away from that and never looked back. And I was busier the day I retired than I was when I was working. I always had a full-time list of things to do.

And you have quite the partner to do those things with. You and Carolyn have been married 53 years. We’ll get to some of your adventures, but first, how did you meet?

Carolyn: His mother took one of my mother’s sewing classes. His mom invited us to their farm to fish and happened to mention she had a son home from college, so I went along. I walked into the living room with his sister and she said that we were going to go swimming. I said, “I don’t have a swimsuit,” and the first words Hank ever said were, “Well, you can borrow mine.”

Hank: I took one look at her and said, “That’s the one I’m going to marry.” And four years later I did.

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Sounds like your dad! You travel a great deal. You must both be pretty adventurous.

Carolyn: Oh, yes. In fact, one day, years ago, he came home from work. It was Monday. He said, “How would you like to go to Europe on Saturday?” I’d never been anywhere in my life. I said, “Oh, yeah!” We had three small kids, so I immediately had to find a baby sitter for two weeks. I didn’t have a passport. I called my mom and she managed to find my birth certificate, and I got the passport just hours before we left. We’ve been traveling ever since. We’ve been to Europe and several of the eastern European countries. I’ve also had the opportunity to travel to Turkey, Uzbekistan and Egypt. We both went to Iran three years ago.

Hank: Every year I have at least one major hunting adventure. I’ve been on many guided hunts, including hunting moose in British Columbia, impala in South Africa and wild boar on Catalina Island. I’ve also hunted mountain goat and bear. I enjoy being in the bush and in the mountains. I’ll go hunting this weekend for quail. In the spring I’ll hunt turkeys and, in the fall, I go to Alberta for duck, goose and then pheasants.

Carolyn: We eat everything he shoots. We eat wild game five or six nights a week.

Of course, your annual adventure is a months-long cruise to Alaska each year. You live on the boat and eat what you catch each day.

Carolyn: Yes, we’ve spent four months a year for the last 17 years on the boat. We started in British Columbia and went around Vancouver Island. In our fourth year of cruising we crossed the Dixon Entrance into Alaska and we’ve been going back to Alaska every year since.

And what inspired this annual trip?

Hank: In 1970, Carolyn overheard someone say the Presbyterian Mission needed a cook on their mission boat to Alaska. She and I thought that sounded like fun, so we became the cooks on board. What I loved about the boat is that it had a wheelhouse—from the wheelhouse you can see everything. I always wanted a boat with a wheelhouse.

When we moved to Seattle, the first thing we did was buy a boat. First, we bought a 15-footer, gradually moving to 19-, 21-, 28- and 32-footers. Now we have a 39-foot Nordic Tug with a wheelhouse. We cruise about 3,500 miles during the summer.

What is a typical day like?

Hank: Every day is different, but typically, I get up first and carve and paint for two hours. After breakfast, we pull up the anchor and decide where we want to go depending on the weather.

We’ll say, “We’d like to have salmon, let’s go catch salmon.” Or we might go crabbing. Or if we’re in a bay, we put out a shrimp pot, set the anchor and the next morning we pick up the shrimp trap and we find shrimp to eat. The thing is, you don’t catch more than what you can eat. We do a lot of catch and release.

One time we were on the north end of Dall Island in our dingy and we caught 30 Coho salmon in two hours. We released all of them, keeping one to eat.

Carolyn: If the food supply is getting low, you go to a kelp patch or a rock pile, drop the hook. If you don’t catch something within five minutes you move to the next kelp patch. Nine times out of 10 you’ll easily catch a sea bass or rock fish, some of the best eating there is.

Of course, the highlights for me are the wildlife: the whales, sea lions, sea otters, howling wolves and bird life, like the tufted puffins – you just never know what you’re going to see or when. We often find bears feeding along the shores. One year we counted 85 black and grizzly bears.

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Your trips through Alaska have not only been adventurous, but they’ve also been an inspiration for the work Hank is doing in Northwest Native American carving. What is the relationship?

Carolyn: He’d always been interested in carving, he just never had the time to do it until he retired. Then through our trips to Alaska, we developed relationships with the native people, and Hank has learned from their master carvers how to make authentic Northwest Native American art, masks and bentwood boxes.

Hank: I have been at it about 14 years. I’ve met many of the master carvers along the coast into Alaska. Many have become great friends.

Not only have you become an expert carver, you’ve also made quite a name for yourself by making the first-round bentwood box. How did you come up with the idea and determine how to execute it?

Hank: I was sitting in a class with Master Carver Tim Runyan. I had learned to build square and oblong bentwood boxes. I said, “You know, I’m going to build a round bentwood box.” He said, “How are you going to do that?” And I said, “Well, I have some ideas.” And the first one came out absolutely perfect.

I take a long yellow cedar board, apply the kerfs and soak it in the bathtub overnight. Next day I put it in a steamer I built. An hour later I put one end in a vice and bend the board in a circle. I bend it so it’s perfectly round with one seam. You have to figure out how to put clamps on it. If I get them tight enough, the tension on the clamps is the same all the way around so the forces are the same. I set it on Carolyn’s mix master bowl, put another bowl on top and a 50- pound tool chest on top of that and ten days later you have a perfectly round bentwood box.

Carolyn: That’s his signature piece. His work is now shown for sale in galleries like the Stonington Gallery in Seattle, one of the top galleries the country.

Coincidentally, members of the CWM team recently paid a visit to the gallery where one of the gallery directors proudly proclaimed that Hank was one of the few people in the world with the skill and talent to produce this type of piece.

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You actively participate in Northwest Native American culture on your trips to Alaska. Tell me about some of the other pieces you’ve made as a result.

Carolyn: He also has a few bowls and masks. My favorite mask is a scale model of a four-foot mask called the Crooked Beak. We’ve seen this mask and the two accompanying masks (all supernatural birds) at a Potlatch, a gift-giving ceremony celebrating important events. During the feast, the person giving the potlatch gives away their possessions to the guests to display their wealth, generosity and enhance their prestige. Later the gift-giver will be invited to other Potlatches and receive gifts.

Sounds like a wonderful philosophy – giving away your wealth and having it come back to you. What do you think of the idea of giving everything away and having it come back to you as opposed to investing it?

Hank: It doesn’t work in our world!

Looking back over your career as an engineer, would you have predicted your becoming, among other things, an expert carver?

Hank: Well, something new comes along that you’re interested in and you say, “Well, I could do that.” So you start, and the next thing you know you’re hooked.

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Article by Stacey Sanner, photographer and writer. She published her first book of interviews and photographs, "Keeping a Blue Light On: a Citizen's Tribute to the Seattle Police Department," in 2010. You can learn more at www.keepingabluelighton.com.

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