Monday, March 02, 2009

TOP STORY >> Zumwalt gets more toasts than roasts

Leader staff writer

In the 14 years of roasting and toasting city leaders the Jacksonville Senior Center has never had a roastee like Joan Zumwalt – a person just lucky to be alive to be roasted and toasted.

Her son Greg Jones told the audience of a strong-willed woman, with plenty of emphasis on the word strong and willed, with a toddler (Greg) leaving Okinawa.

When Zumwalt and her son reported to the plane which was to carry them back to the States from Okinawa, Zumwalt told a surprised sergeant that she was not getting on that plane. She insisted that the sergeant find another plane for her and her son. Her insistence, as it has throughout the years, paid off and the sergeant found a different flight leaving later.

Zumwalt and her son went to pick up a custom silver set that she was going to carry on the plane and returned to get on the new plane. She was met there by a teary-eyed sergeant, who informed her that the first plane that she was supposed to get on and insisted not boarding had crashed into a mountain and there were no survivors.

Lightening the mood, Greg then added that the really good news was that someday he’ll inherit that silver set.

On Thursday, Zumwalt was actually more toasted than roasted. It might have been because her daughter Kelli warned everyone early in the dinner, “My mom never goes to bed angry. She stays up and plots her revenge.”

The roasters at the event, a major fund-raiser for the senior center, included Mike McCreight, director of Pathfinder; Tracy French, CEO of Community Bank; Thea Hughes, director of the Jacksonville Wastewater Department; Rev. Wendell Dorman, longtime family friend and former pastor, and Mayor Tommy Swaim.

Hughes, the only woman on the roasting panel, told the more than 200 people at the dinner that she has known Zumwalt ever since she started at the wastewater department, and Zumwalt was on the wastewater commission. Zumwalt is now the chairman of that board.

“She’s an amazing woman who’s been taking everyone’s crap for 25 years,” Hughes joked, adding, “We call her the head stoolie.”

Hughes said she and Zumwalt are in a business dominated by males. “But she taught me how to be a lady, and still talk poop,” Hughes said.

She said Zumwalt has always approached her work on the sewer commission in the vein of “what is best for Jacksonville, never about her.” Hughes ended her roast and toast with a special plaque signed for Zumwalt by the employees of the wastewater department. The plaque? A gold-colored toilet seat.

McCreight lead off the event, reminding the audience that when Zumwalt and her husband McLyle got involved with Pathfinder 37 years ago, the organization had just one teacher and one aide helping six kids and was operating on a budget of $12,000.

Today, Pathfinder is a $35 million program with more than 1,000 employees and 135 vehicles helping hundreds of clients across the state. “Pathfinder would not be Pathfinder without Joan,” McCreight said.

McCreight said Zumwalt had such passion and vision for her causes that he felt he could make some predictions about what the future holds with Zumwalt leading the charge.

“I see her incorporating the national Easter Seals and Cerebral Palsy organization into Pathfinders. I see her convincing Walmart to open a pre-school development center in every Supercenter, and I see her relocating the air base, and then moving the military museum to where the air base was, and did I mention she’d keep all the base structures and members for the museum.” (You had to be there.)

McCreight also reminded the audience that Zumwalt owns and operates a very successful store “near the county line” and that Zumwalt was heartbroken when Anheuser Busch was sold to a foreign country. “I can see her buying Anheuser Bush back from that foreign country, but with one small change. Budweiser would be renamed Zumweiser, Queen of Beers,” he said.

Tracy French, who runs Community Bank, has known Zumwalt for “six years, seven months and 29 days.” That’s how long ago Zumwalt, who is on the bank’s board of directors, helped hire French to run the bank.

French called Zumwalt “the real deal.”

“She is talented and has vision,” French said. He told of how everyone thought there was no way she could get a plane for the military museum, “but then one Sunday morning, here came an F-15 down Main Street.”

French said rumors have it that she is after another plane for the museum. He even had a picture of it — Air Force One. “Don’t laugh, with Joan you never know,” he said.

The mayor had fun injecting City Attorney Bob Bamburg into the conversation. Bamburg is married to Zumwalt’s daughter Lisa. Swaim said a few years ago, Bamburg put a lot of thought in finding just the right birthday present for Zumwalt. “It was a good, but a different type of present,” the mayor said. “It was a shady cemetery plot.”

The next birthday came and Zumwalt didn’t get a card or a present from Bamburg and she just couldn’t understand. Finally she asked him why he hadn’t gotten her anything.

According to the mayor, Bamburg said, “Well, you didn’t use what I gave you last year.”

Swaim said Zumwalt has done a great job for the city. “She is willing to give whatever it takes every day,” he said.