Nearly a month ago my good friend Wayne suffered a massive heart attack and died. Just like that. One moment he was here, the next he wasn’t. For something that happens so quickly and completely, I’m in awe at how long it takes to process and accept the magnitude of the event.
Today we held the Celebration of Life memorial service for Wayne. Sitting in the sanctuary, staring up at the larger than life image of Wayne zip-lining high up in a clear blue sky, it really began to sink in — Wayne is gone.
Years ago when I was teaching and actively involved in our teacher’s union I went on a business trip with Wayne and his wife Kathy. For as long as I’ve known them the two have always been an iconic pair. Peanut Butter has Jelly. The Birds have the Bees. Wayne has Kathy, and vice versa. The two just belong together. Walking up to the front desk of our hotel it was clear to the receptionist that Wayne and Kathy were in fact a Wayne and Kathy… which left me in her mind as… their daughter. The moment the woman referred to me as their daughter I was about to correct her when Wayne just responded in the affirmative that I was, in fact, their daughter. And I have been ever since.
As the initial shock of Wayne’s death began to fade, the reality of appropriately honoring him came crashing into play. As details and plans were made for his services, Kathy asked me if I would write a memorial pamphlet about Wayne’s life. What could I say? I was beyond honored to do something, anything, for this man who had meant so much over the years, who had done so much for me. Of course I would proudly write his memorial pamphlet. But… how?
How do you immortalize the essence of a man, when you still can’t wrap your head around the loss? How do you share what he means to everyone, when he has touched so many lives? How do you find the words to bring the man you love so dearly back to life, if just through memories? It was a daunting task to say the least.
After a few glasses of wine, hours of reminiscing and pages of typed notes, I was ready to begin. Yet, I still couldn’t. My grief was exhibiting itself as writer’s block.I spent a week and a half pouring over my notes, scrolling through page after page of Facebook postings, and pulling lyrics from several of Wayne’s favorite songs until finally I was able to get something on paper.This is what I wrote:
Donald “Wayne” Zimmerman was not born a rich man, but in life he amassed riches much greater than mere gold. With parents each hailing from very large families, Wayne began his journey surrounded by his many Miner and Zimmerman cousins. With them he discovered his first friends, began forming his first bonds to others and in doing so learned to embrace the importance and significance of family. Wayne built his life on the foundation of family, be it blood relatives or those close to him he’d adopted over the years. He was a man of generous spirit always giving to others. In the days following his passing countless stories surfaced of times Wayne reached out to help others. Wayne was a doer and a thinker. He liked being involved in his community. He liked creating things with his hands. And he did these things for others regularly.
In his early teen years Wayne began a lifelong love affair with music. In the junior high he began playing trumpet, eventually joining the marching band in high school. However, by that time Wayne had grown into quite the strapping young lad so his trumpet was quickly replaced by a tuba – this was due in part to the fact that Wayne was one of the few young men who could actually manage to CARRY the tuba. But instrument aside Wayne enjoyed his time on the marching band where he could create music and be a part of complex routines. He thrived on the art, energy and teamwork of it all. But, like so many students that age, he struggled with his studies. Kathy describes Wayne in these years as only a teacher can “He was that kid, the one you love, but he doesn’t try and you think ‘I hope you’ll wake up one day and decide to fulfill your potential’ – that was Wayne.”
Fortunately Wayne had teachers who invested in him and saw that potential. In his later high school years Wayne was chosen by his teachers at Fayetteville High to take part in a program called Upward Bound. In the program Wayne spent a summer living in a dorm at the University of Arkansas, another passion of his, and attending classes. The goal of the program was to show students like Wayne that college was an option, furthering their education was achievable. And it worked. Almost too well. After graduating from high school Wayne spent the next eight years at the University of Arkansas getting not only his Bachelor’s, but also his Master’s degree. Another lifelong love was born – education.
Originally attending U of A with the intent of pursuing an architectural degree, Wayne eventually decided he wasn’t as interested in the math side of that degree and more passionate about working with his hands to create and build. But that love of education was too strong by this point and Wayne found himself called to teach industrial technology. Which he built an impressive 27 year career in Lee’s Summit doing.
By his early 20’s Wayne had already led a rich work life – when he was 12 or 13 years of age Wayne began working construction with his uncle. Not only did this job allow Wayne to spend more time with his much loved family members, but also began the foundation for his love of woodwork. Through the years Wayne has artfully crafted many pieces for his loved ones, most recently and notably the bench he made in lieu of a guest book at Suzannah and Donald’s wedding and the changing table he built for his youngest granddaughter Charlie. Anyone who has been to Mimosa Drive can also see his handiwork on an impressive tree fort at a neighbor’s house. And who can forget the time he was doing some repairs on his own deck and ended up in the hospital for stitches due to his decision to use an unreliable patio chair as a step ladder… Wayne was great with his hands, but maybe not always his shortcuts.
Throughout college Wayne held many more colorful occupations – he worked at a feed lot, he was a surveyor at a gas company, he was a bartender in a bowling alley, he was a photographer in the National Guard, he even worked at a steel company where his passion and dedication to the underdog led him to organize a labor union, our own little Norma Ray.
Wayne was nothing if not passionate. One friend recently wrote to Kathy sharing:
“I had a strange, yet wonderful thought. Wayne’s heart was bigger than him. Over the years it was so big and wide and deep that it shouldered injustices, the disenfranchised, those hurt by circumstances beyond their control. He lived with passion, something that can only be heart-birthed. The hearts of many people merely function, by doing the physical job they were created to do—get blood to where it needs to go. But Wayne’s heart, because of his passion and love and caring, did so much more.”
And it did. Wayne fought tirelessly against injustice, ignorance, bigotry and just plain assholes his whole life. A former student remembered Wayne with a tale that so beautifully captures the type of teacher and coach he was – yes he was teaching skills, but more importantly he was building character.
“When I was in 7th grade I took his Industrial Technology class – basically, I was the only girl in “shop.” He watched out for me, never let the guys give me any crap, and repeatedly gave me the opportunity to prove myself in front of the whole class. I’ll never forget one day, when some of the boys were calling each other “gay” and “faggot,” Mr. Z slammed his fist down on his desk and boomed out in the first real display of anger I’d ever seen from him.
“Gay people are not bad, and they’re not out to get you,” he said. “I won’t tolerate that kind of talk in this class.”
I was 13 and it would be another year or two before I started identifying my own queerness. But I never forgot that day, and it certainly stuck with me when I started figuring things out. He was one of maybe 3 teachers I had in my entire primary education who ever made such a vocal stance or created such a space. He didn’t have to do that, and I’ll never forget that he did.”
Wayne gave us all a safer place to just be ourselves. And he helped us be better versions of ourselves. He was so comfortable in his own skin and in that he radiated a sense of coolness. One friend nailed the feeling perfectly when she wrote “He just had a way of loaning you his coolness and joy.” So true.
Wayne was always cool. And it came from that place of self-awareness and acceptance. Vietnam was playing in the background of Wayne’s college years, but Wayne had a low draft number and was able to stay in school and avoid going to war. He had married his high school sweetheart and had a young daughter to think of, Wayne’s responsibilities began at an early age. However Wayne was a man of honor, and while conflicted about the war and his obligations, civic duty and patriotism would always play a key role in Wayne’s life. So he joined the National Guard where he was able to perform his duty, all while embracing his cool. In those years Wayne had luxuriously long black hair (hard to imagine now), which wasn’t allowed in the Guard. However, Wayne only had to report every few weekends so he felt no need to trim that glorious mane. Wayne opted for wearing a wig when he served as a compromise to cutting his hair, but still meeting the appearance guidelines for the Guard. Even when Wayne compromised, he won. One compromise Wayne did not make over the years was with his beard. His mother would constantly harass him with “Sonny! I had a dream you shaved your beard!” in hopes he’d pick up the hint. He did not fold. In fact, even when the hair on his head was long gone, Papa Z still rocked his beard in some form or another be it goatee or full face.
Those who knew Wayne well knew his love of music festivals. If Wayne could sit outdoors, listen to some blues and drink one of his notorious porch pounders (hipster term for cheap beer) from a can, he was a happy man. Wayne had an impressive collection of tee shirts from events he and Kathy had travelled all over to attend over the years. And he loved to share the music he discovered with others and plan trips for his friends to join him on his many adventures. Wayne was often described as having an infectious smile and laugh, this was never more true than when he was surrounded by friends, simply enjoying the moment, enjoying life.
Wayne loved the outdoors. One of his favorite places was Roaring River where he, Kathy and Suzannah spent many happy years camping. Trips which, in the early years, were not as eagerly embraced by his ladies, but once they realized he would do all the work and they just had to sit back and enjoy, they were more on-board. That was Wayne, he was a doer. He exemplified the concept of “Work Hard, Play Hard” and was always searching for others to enjoy his good times with.
Upon retiring Wayne began taking his bucket list seriously. His goal was to see as many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s creations as possible. Back in Wayne’s teaching days he attended a conference in Tucson with his Industrial Tech crew and had the chance to tour Taliesin West – the former winter home for Frank Lloyd Wright and currently home of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. Kathy recalls even all those years ago Wayne calling her that night and saying “Ahhhh, I had the best day of my life. I sat in Frank Lloyd Wright’s desk chair.” Wayne loved to be a part of things – he wanted to experience them for himself, not just learn about them. He spent a lifetime touring historic spots and places of interest, especially if they concerned Frank Lloyd Wright, the Civil War or the Blues.
Beyond his physical adventures, Wayne also loved his food adventures. If it weren’t too damn pretentious sounding, Wayne would have considered himself a foodie. Always talented with his hands he had a gift as a chef. But with his Arkansas roots, he ventured out into all sorts of culinary feats from his cedar-plank salmon to his smoked bologna. Wayne ate the spectrum. One of Wayne’s favorite “Top This” stories centered on food. Whenever someone would whine about not having much money Wayne would tell them about growing up on Weinie-Water Soup. “Growing up we would have hot dogs one night, save the water as a broth and toss in some vegetables the second night for Weinie-Water Soup!” While Wayne’s mom Marie went to the grave discounting this tale, Wayne swore by it.
Wayne was proud of his Arkansas roots. Take a stroll down Mimosa Drive and you’ll see the Arkansas Razorback flags in everyone’s yard as a memorial tribute to Wayne. Oh how the man loved his Razorback Hogs. Football season found his Facebook page cluttered with ongoing commentary while watching the games. He even had a hog tattoo. And if you close your eyes, think of Wayne and listen closely you may even hear him calling “Woo Pig Soiee!”
Wayne lived big, he loved big. While not nearly as close with his two daughters, Lori and Tracey, from his first marriage, he loved being a father to both them and Suzannah. He loved being a grandfather and, while he missed out on a lot of experiences with Tracey’s kids Tracey, Tristan and Skylar, in his retirement one of his greatest joys was spending time with his granddaughter Charlie. Wayne was a wise man, he knew he couldn’t turn back time and change choices or relationships that had already come to pass, but he could learn from them, grow from them and make new choices. Every day was a new day for Wayne – full of new adventure, new things to learn, new people to meet, new memories to make. And he loved sharing that with his family. Being a family man was one of Wayne’s greatest roles.
Throughout his life Wayne went by many names (Sonny, Don Wayne, Mr. Z, Coach Z, Papa Z, WAAAAYYYAAANNE, Paw-PAW) and held many roles (construction crew, bartender, photographer, steel worker, feed lot worker, teacher, coach, cousin, uncle, son, dad, grandpa, friend, mentor, husband). And while he may not have been born a rich man, Wayne Zimmerman led a very rich life making all of us the richer for having known him.
We love you Wayne. You will be sorely missed.