Getting Personal: Kevin Cummings

Getting Personal: Kevin Cummings

Each week, we offer an email Q&A with a local personality. Today, Paul Wood chats with 57-year-old Urbana resident Kevin Cummings. He is the curator of mollusks at the Illinois Natural History Survey Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois. He conducts research on the biology and conservation of freshwater mollusks, primarily mussels.

What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

I wake up around 7 a.m., fetch The News-Gazette from the front porch and then read the obituaries to check and make sure I'm still here.

What do you consider your greatest achievement or accomplishment?

I was one of many people who helped found the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society, a group of scientists and conservationists interested in protecting and studying what many consider to be the most endangered group of animals on the planet. Today, we have more than 400 members worldwide dedicated to conserving and educating people about the plight of these important invertebrates.

What do you regard as your most treasured possession?

My family and friends.

Do you have a guilty pleasure?

Not enough space to list here.

What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?

"The River of Doubt, Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey" by Candice Millard. A fascinating account of a trip he took to the Amazon Basin after he was president. I don't really have a favorite of all time.

Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?

I've worked in major rivers (Mississippi, Congo, Zambezi, Amazon, Orinoco) on all of the continents except Asia, so I'd like to take an expedition to the Irrawaddy and/or Mekong rivers.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

That would be my dog, Otis. My wife found him on the street while waiting to get tickets for Alison Krauss at the Virginia some years back. He was a bit of a mess, but we sure loved him. We lost him this past spring.

What's your favorite sports team?

Growing up on the South Side, it has to be the White Sox and Da Bears, of course. As an Illini basketball season ticket holder for more than 25 years, I'm really jazzed about Coach Groce and what he brings to the table.

What would you order for your last meal?

Surf and turf with all the fixings and a side of White Castle sliders.

If you could be reincarnated after you die, what would you like to come back as?

George Clooney.

Who are your favorite musicians and why?

Seeing as I'm married to one of the most beautiful and talented singers I've ever heard, that would be my wife, Kathy Harden. People in regular rotation on my iPod are Muddy Waters, Civil Wars, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Alejandro Escovedo, Dale Watson, Paul Thorn, Robbie Fulks, Bryan Ferry, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams and Tom Waits.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

Beating colorectal cancer (knock wood).

If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite? What would you serve?

President Barack Obama, musician Jack White and evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson. I would serve a heaping helping of humility.

Which historical figure do you admire the most and why?

Two people immediately come to mind. Capt. Sir Richard Francis Burton, English geographer, explorer, writer, ethnologist, spy, linguist and diplomat. He traveled throughout the Americas, Africa and Asia (including traveling in disguise to Mecca), spoke 29 languages (including Greek, Arabic and Swahili), discovered the "source" of the Nile, brought the kama sutra to publication in English — and that's just the tip of the iceberg. They don't make 'em like that anymore. Also, Nelson Mandela, for his style and grace after enduring horrifying circumstances.

What personality trait do you most hate in other people?

Cruelty, particularly to animals and the defenseless.

Most hate in yourself?


What's your best piece of advice?

From Hunter S. Thompson: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

Janitor at $1.65 an hour.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

To take my job here at the Illinois Natural History Survey, where I've worked happily for more than 30 years now. Fresh out of grad school, it was an easy decision and one I've never regretted.

Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?

Not having kids. But I've got a great blended family so it's worked out well. I've got four wonderful grandkids now and I got to skip the crappy parts (literally).

How do you handle a stressful situation?

Bourbon. Lots of bourbon.


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