In memoriam: Charles Kulpa, professor emeritus of biological sciences

Author: Deanna Csomo Ferrell

In Memoriam Feature

Charles “Chuck” Frank Kulpa Jr., professor emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences, died April 30 in South Bend. He was 80.

Kulpa was a respected scholar and professor of environmental and applied microbiology for 40 years. He studied the metabolism of microbes, including bacteria, and investigated topics including their ability to degrade toxic pollutants in the environment.

“Chuck used a novel combination of molecular, biochemical and cellular approaches to determine how microbes detoxified these pollutants, and he was among the first microbiologists to embrace the new field of ‘biotechnology’ that is now so fundamental to science,” said Professor Gary Lamberti, whose office was next to Kulpa’s in Galvin Life Science Center.

A triple graduate of the University of Michigan (with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees) and avid Wolverine football fan, Kulpa began working as a professor at the University of Notre Dame in 1972 and retired in 2012.

“He was an experimentalist. He enjoyed talking about the details of all sorts of lab procedures and was curious about everything in the science news and enjoyed discussing current topics with colleagues,” said Professor Joseph O’Tousa. “This was key to how he approached his course and lab teaching assignments.

“Yet he would also want to talk to me about family news and other things going on outside of work. His friendship provided an important perspective for me in balancing these life activities. I imagine his students benefited from this as well.”

Intellectually curious, Kulpa frequently took advantage of novel opportunities. For instance, when Kulpa studied how to remediate polluted areas by “seeding” them with microbes, he speculated that he would not find suitable microbes in the Midwest because much of the soil has been polluted by industry.

When Lamberti mentioned that he was traveling to Alaska for some research, Kulpa had an idea.

“One day he asked me, ‘Gary, can you bring me some dirt from Alaska?’” Lamberti said. “He explained that he needed the dirt to search for bacteria that he can culture because Alaska has low pollution.

“Dutifully, I brought him back vials of soil from remote areas of Alaska, and he was thrilled to find some new microbes to test in his lab.”

At the same time, Kulpa was down to earth and, when he was department chair, he allowed students to throw pies in his face for a fundraiser, Lamberti shared. “I think Chuck enjoyed it more than the students.”

According to Kulpa’s obituary, he was an avid golfer and played on the green of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, an experience that held deep meaning for him. He also enjoyed traveling and sharing his travel stories with all who would listen. Kulpa is survived by his wife, four children, 18 grandchildren, a great-grandchild, a brother and a sister.

“He cherished his family,” O’Tousa said. “ He was beaming whenever he talked of the many times he and Loretta and their farm would be the destination spot for a summer week with their grandkids or their treks to the east coast to visit their grandchildren.”

Visitation will be from 12 to 2 p.m. Saturday (May 11) at Brown Funeral Home, 521 E. Main Street, Niles.

Originally published by Deanna Csomo Ferrell at on May 10, 2024.