For those handicapping the next inductee into the Little Falls School District’s Hall of Fame — there’s a new frontrunner.
Brian Kobilka, a 1973 graduate of Little Falls Community High School who is now a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, won a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry Wednesday. He and colleague Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University Medical Center, earned the award for studies of protein receptors that let body cells sense and respond to outside signals.
“Yes, I imagine he probably went to the top of the list,” Tim Bjorge, Little Falls Community High School principal said. “It’s a proud moment for our community.”
Contacted today at Stanford, Kobilka, 57, reflected on his days growing up in Little Falls, where his family owned the Sanitary Bakery, now Pete and Joy’s Bakery.
“It was a pretty normal childhood,” he said. “It was a small town but it was the county seat. I had great science and math teachers.”
He ran track and cross country in high school but said he wasn’t particularly talented in those sports.
Kobilka said he was both happy and surprised to get the early morning call about the Nobel Prize and that it was difficult to describe his precise feelings.
Kobilka’s ingenuity and dedication to science date back to his college days. He and his wife built a tissue-culture hood from scrap heavy plastic at his family’s bakery.
Bjorge said there were inquiries from area newspapers, Twin Cities television stations and a visit from a news crew from KSTP television at the school. Three of Kobilka’s former teachers — Ed Lavern, Gary Irwin and John Ahlin — were interviewed at the school by KSTP.
“You could see the pride in their faces...as they talked about Brian,” Bjorge, a 1985 Little Falls graduate, said.
Former teachers and a classmate of Little Falls Community High School graduate remembered him as a motivated student who kept in touch with Little Falls friends.
“It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” high school classmate David Musielewicz, said Wednesday. “He’s been a real dedicated scientist all his life.”
Musielewicz, also a 1973 graduate of Little Falls Community High School, recalled when Kobilka and he planned to paint houses one summer but Kobilka decided to accept a last-minute offer to work in a lab at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Even though Kobilka backed out of the house-painting job, Kobilka’s father allowed Musielewicz to use his truck to haul scaffolding to the job site as had been arranged earlier.
“He was always hardworking,” Musielewicz said of Kobilka. “He was third in our class, I think, in terms of GPA (grade-point average). He’s always been a good guy — ambitious in an interesting way.
“I told Steve Wenzel (Central Lakes College instructor and former state lawmaker) years ago Brian was the kind of guy who could win the Nobel Prize.”
Musielewicz, a mediator and arbitrator with the Minnesota Department of Labor, ran track and cross country with Kobilka.
Lavern, Kobilka’s high school chemistry teacher, said the prize winner received straight As in his classes.
“Well, I remember he was a hardworking young man,” Lavern said, “He took chemistry and physics and biology. He was quite handy at the sciences. He was one of my better students.”
The retired teacher said Kobilka, who lived a few doors down from him on Riverview Drive in Little Falls, said Kobilka had a good attitude as a student.
Gary Irwin, who taught Kobilka in biology and in anatomy physiology, would occasionally talk to him about the Nobel winner’s work when he returned to Little Falls.
“When he came he talked about what he was working on and of course it’s way over my head,” Irwin said.
Irwin said Kobilka was a terrific student who was dedicated, quiet and asked good questions.
“You could tell he was going somewhere,” Irwin said. “There was no goofing around with Brian. If you wanted to come up with a model student, he was probably it. He treated me with respect. He was never disruptive. He was just a wonderful young man.”