Honored with his school’s “Spirit of the Eagle” award, J. Harold Zook ‘59 has soared beyond expectations. Zook, the 2002 EMU Alumnus of the Year, has used his gifts and positive spirit during a 36-year career in education to influence hundreds o f young lives, despite a major disability.
Former students, parents, staff and administrators testify to the fact that Harold “demonstrated his faith, love and belief in the divine in every person,” reported James Payne ‘57, who nominated Zook for the alumni award.
The EMU Alumnus o f the Year award is given annually to an alumnus or alumna who has been recognized for significant achievement in their profession, community or church.
Born in Oley, Pa., Zook had a rare unnamed disability that restricted movement, making it difficult to stand and walk. Gradual tightening of tendons in his legs eventually confined him to a wheelchair as a young adult. The last 10 years of his career he used a motorized seat. After retirement, muscle deterioration led to surgery, a ventilator and 24-hour care.
Despite this, “he is as positive as any person you can meet,” wrote Payne, Zook’s EM U roommate, in his nominating letter. Zook’s years at Indian Valley Middle School in Reedsville, Pa., would have been an outstanding career for anyone, says Payne. But “his faith gave him hope and strength. In his life he soared like the eagle,” referring to the school’s mascot.
Zook’s parents enrolled him as a dorm student at Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite High School so he could experience living independently. Upon graduation, Zook assumed he would farm, using skills he had learned on his parents’ land raising tomatoes for C am pell’s Soup Company. But his father had other ideas: continued education at Eastern Mennonite College.
“My father had the sense to know I wouldn’t be able to survive (as a farmer),” said Zook at a retirement celebration. “So I went off to college…into education because I didn’t know what else to do. Later, I fell in love with the teaching profession.”
Prior to enrolling at EMU , Zook endured two operations followed by a year-long rehabilitation. Finally at EMU, he found a friendly environment, though one not always conducive to getting around with a disability. Negotiating steps to the dining hall was one challenge. “Som etim es guys would pick me up and carry me down, making a joke out of it, which eased my concern a b it,” recalled Zook.
As a senior, Zook planned to skip a geology class field trip because he could not walk on sand. Hearing about this, several classmates made a padded seat with side handles. They carried him around campus in 20-minute shifts, with Harold wondering what was going on. Finally they announced, “You’re going to Jones’ Wharf on the field trip!”
“I’ll never forget those guys,” says Harold. “That kind of caring gave me immense self-confidence.”
As a young man, Zook made a conscious decision not to marry—despite a meaningful relationship with a woman—because of the unknowns o f his condition. The decision allowed him to focus all his energies on his career, often working 16-hour days.
Zook served as assistant principal for more than 15 years, a behind-the-scene job that he loved because he thoroughly enjoyed helping young people— particularly troubled ones— become “responsible and responsive” in the world. An “old formula” he used with students was “listening plus sharing equals caring.”
“Harold contributed immeasurably to the school by being a solid rock for students…which magnified itself in the community by building a wonderful generation of young adults,” said the parents of one youth. Zook was known as a tough but loving disciplinarian who followed up with graduates, encouraging them and congratulating them on any achievement.
“Every man is a portrait of himself,” said Zook. “…My portrait is a tribute to all those who have helped me to never lose my love for life, nor my belief and willingness to face each day with anticipation, love and happiness just for the privilege o f doing so.”
Zook kept a running log on student infractions. Some files grew rather thick. But when a student demonstrated a change o f heart, Zook noticed, and would ask the student to accompany him to the boiler room where together they would throw it in the furnace and watch the notes go up in smoke; the past was forgotten.
Payne compares Zook’s history of relating to students to Christ’s way of forgiveness. “When a student turned around his or her life through Harold’s help, he did not believe their past had any relevance, and should be forgotten,” wrote Payne.
Zook stuck with students, unwilling to give up hope. He was known to sit with students as they pleaded with teachers, and accompany youth when they went to the police. He was a “tough, but loving disciplinarian,” wrote Payne, never excusing poor choices, but helping youth to understand the consequences of their actions, so they could make amends and pursue better choices in the future.
“No person I know has so fully lived my perception of Jesus, nor has influenced so many persons to realize the potential given to them by their Creator,” declared Payne.
Published in Crossroads, Spring 2002