I mourn the passing of John Zambo, a man who I learned to call “Uncle John,” who died last week at age 92. That’s a ripe old age, one might say along with casually adding the usual condolence. For me it’s significant as I ponder the life and death of this gentle soul from the heartland of South Dakota – a man of Hungarian heritage whose life has touched and taught me lessons about accepting and not prejudging others.
John is from what’s been called “The Greatest Generation.” Proud, patriotic, enterprising, and fiercely independent – a family centered man. John entered the army in 1941, joining the 109th Combat Engineers – part of the 34th Infantry known as the Red Bull Division. He later saw action in December 1942 when deployed to North Africa to fight against Germany’s General Rommel. Trained as a skilled Ham radio operator, he was deployed with his unit to Southern Italy to continue battling the Germans up the Italian peninsula, seeing action at Naples, the Anzio beachhead.
After the war ended John attended the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology under the GI Bill. He took a position as Chief Electrical Engineer in Colorado where he worked for 42 years.
John married wife Alma and they raised five children. Alma preceded him in death. John’s love of Ham radio remained with him after the Army years and was a hobby. He also enjoyed playing cello and through his 80s was still enjoying dancing on the weekends.
I met John while engaged to his niece, whom I married, and over the years his warmth and easy manner, along with his love of life and people, found me easily calling him Uncle John, as did my wife’s entire family. He always seemed interested in me and was a wonderful conversationalist. He enjoyed listening to my jazz recordings and hearing about my performances. My time around him and our talks during his last days confirmed to me the power we humans have if we choose deliberately to become the ones with open hands and hearts, eager to accept others, as Dr. King said, based not upon the color of one’s skin but the on the content of their character.
My wife and I both loved Uncle John and I too will miss this gentle, caring human being, as will his fellow Masons and church family of 60 years. Perhaps missing him mostly will be his children and his many grandchildren and great grandchildren, who all loved him dearly, and whose racial diversity reflect the changing American family. Their caring and affection for him and the fact that he never once mentioned to me their ethnicity or race suggest that maybe the freedoms Uncle John defended for all Americans are finally coming into full affect. For Uncle John, all he ever seemed to care was whether a person was a decent human being or not. That in the end is perhaps all one can expect and the greatest legacy one can leave.