Published Monday, November 1, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

Friends and relatives recall San Jose man's love for world travel

Mercury News Staff Writer

Four Bay Area residents — including a woman once kidnapped by Kurdish rebels and a manager in one of Silicon Valley's most successful companies — were among the apparent victims of the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990.

Their families were notified by the airline, which told them they didn't expect any survivors.

Kurt Schwenk of San Jose, rugby fanatic and world traveler, was leading his biggest tour yet. The 39-year-old manager of business development for Palm Computing Inc.'s strategic alliance and platform group — the Santa Clara company developed the popular Palm Pilot hand-held computers — was on his way to a vacation in Egypt. With him were his girlfriend, who lived in Los Altos, her parents, her roommate, his mother, Erica Schwenk of New Jersey, and his sister Mitzi Schwenk and her husband William Jackson of Florida. Schwenk's family declined to identify his girlfriend or her roommate.

Schwenk's sister, Heidi Schwenk of Palo Alto, said an EgyptAir representative called her on Sunday and confirmed her brother's entourage was aboard EgyptAir Flight 990.

``The airline said they don't expect any survivors,'' she said. ``We know they're gone.''

Also aboard was a San Ramon woman who was once kidnapped by Kurdish rebels and held hostage for three days. Imilda Kolander, 66, was on her way to Egypt to see the pyramids ``and ride a camel for a day,'' said her husband, Harry Kolander, 79.

In the South Bay, friends recalled Kurt Schwenk's passion for adventure and his bigger-than-life personality. ``He lived life to the fullest and he always had a smile,'' said Bill Joos, a friend of eight years. ``He was the type of guy that if you needed the shirt off his back, there'd be no hesitation.''

Rugby was Schwenk's athletic obsession. He played for the San Jose Seahawks, an amateur rugby team, about once a week. One of his favorite T-shirts had the insignia of the Red Cross with the slogan ``Give Blood. Play Rugby.'' His favorite watering hole was the Britannia Arms Pub, in Cupertino, where he and his rugby buddies would watch international matches on television.

``He wouldn't have missed it for the world,'' said friend Nancy Keith Kelly, who recently moved to Singapore. Schwenk helped organize her farewell party two weeks ago. ``From where he is, he'll be watching the rugby world cup (next week), cheering for the underdog.''

Their birthdays are two days apart, and they made a habit of celebrating together with friends.

``Our gatherings always ended with raucous laughter over a single-malt scotch,'' Keith Kelly remembered.

If there was anything Schwenk loved more than rugby and a fine scotch, friends said, it would be animals — golden retrievers in particular.

When he first took Casey, one of two golden retrievers he owned, home as a puppy, Schwenk had to train him to stay in the kitchen. But he couldn't bear listening to the puppy's whimpering.

``So he picked up a blanket and a pillow and slept on the kitchen floor with Casey,'' Keith Kelly said.

His crew cut was Schwenk's distinctive feature, friend Stefan Schaefer said. ``He used to cut his hair very short and it was a great calling card for him,'' Schaefer said. ``People loved to rub his head and he'd oblige complete strangers.''

Friends treasured his sharp wit and clever sense of humor.

``Kurt loved a good joke and could easily laugh at himself,'' Keith Kelly said. ``He loved a good banter back and forth. Our conversations almost sounded like a comedy routine.''

Schwenk was an avid reader of history who loved traveling the globe, including recent trips to Ireland, Nepal and Spain.

``He just learned so much about life and about himself doing that,'' his sister Heidi said. ``Traveling taught him things about himself that he might not have learned staying in one place.''

She took solace in knowing that her mother and brother died en route to doing what they both deeply enjoyed.

``It's been very difficult — unbelievable — one of those tragedies that shouldn't happen,'' she said. ``It's an accident that no one should ever have to endure.''

Kolander's husband said the last time he saw his was wife of 35 years was Saturday when he dropped her off at the airport. He was worried about her flying alone, especially after her trip to eastern Turkey in September 1991. She was one of five people detained by Kurdish rebels, who blew up their minivan. She was able to get away from her captors by climbing a mountain with the tour director.

The couple traveled together until Harry Kolander's diabetes made it difficult. But he encouraged her to continue what she loved, he said. The couple discussed the possibility of something happening on an airline flight, Kolander said.

She said ``if that will happen, I do hope it's fast,'' Kolander said.

``You live in hope for a while and then they find the debris and then you know it's a bad situation,'' he said Sunday.

The Contra Costa Times contributed to this report.

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