by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — An enduring hymn that most Catholics are familiar with is “Faith of Our Fathers.”
For the Zarda family, it’s not just a hymnbook standard, but also a guide for a way of life — and the reason why Ben and Betty Zarda and Tom and Mickey Zarda are Deo Gratias Award recipients for 2016. The two couples are lifetime members of St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee.
Ben and Tom are two of five brothers born to hard-working dairy farmers. Betty is the daughter of parents who were “truck farmers,” and Mickey is the daughter of a widowed mother of nine children.
It was their Catholic faith that got their families through the hard work and rough times, and prompted a lifestyle of giving back to the church and community that has spanned generations.
Once, when his father was preparing to go out and make yet another fundraising appeal for the parish school, Ben asked him a question.
“I said, ‘Dad, you know, you’ve been working all your life for the church and doing all those things. Your kids are all out of school now and there are other kids and parents there. It seems like they ought to be taking your place.’
“And he said, ‘Let me tell you something. We came from the old country, got married and came out to Shawnee. We had kids. There was a school here for them to go to and a church for us to go to. I had nothing to do with those facilities being here. Someone before me made it possible for the next generation. I owe that to the next generation, to make sure there is a church and school for them to attend.’”
It was such examples of faith and giving back from their parents that led both Zarda couples to serve their parishes and schools, and a plethora of worthy causes for both the church and the community.
Annually, the Catholic Foundation of Northeast Kansas presents the Deo Gratias Award to individuals and Catholic institutions at a dinner. This year, that dinner will be on Nov. 3 at Savior Pastoral Center in Kansas City, Kansas.
The Deo Gratias (Latin for “thanks be to God”) Award is given in recognition of outstanding achievement, service and support of Catholic institutions that are CFNEK fund holders, as well as Catholic Legacy Society members. In addition to the Zardas, Bob Chenoweth will accept an award on behalf of Catholic Cemeteries of Northeast Kansas.
Today, the Zardas are a Johnson County success story. Over the years, Ben and Tom have had a variety of diversified business activities, including banks, convenience/dairy stores, a sports complex, a cemetery, strip malls, apartment buildings and an industrial park — just to name a few.
But it all began with a dairy farm and about 120 cows. It included milking those cows twice a day, 365 days a year, without interruption.
The Zarda family almost had to close the dairy at the beginning of World War II, when all the farm help left to work in higher-paying defense industry jobs.
Ben recalled how, in 1942, their father called the five boys together and gave them two choices: Either the boys had to drop out of school to help run the dairy, or they’d have to liquidate the farm.
The boys dropped out of school. Eventually, the older boys served in the military. Ben drove a dairy route at age 14 — before he could legally hold a driver’s license. Tom, the youngest, was fortunate to finish high school, but could go no further.
“I personally had an opportunity, a scholarship, to go to St. Benedict’s College [in Atchison], but I had to turn it down because of the business,” said Tom, “because I had to milk cows.”
While he was in junior high and high school, Tom would get up at 3 a.m. to milk cows with the family, go to school, and come back to milk again at 3 p.m.
Leading the family was their father, who, despite the long and unrelenting work hours, was a daily Mass-goer.
“That’s the example he gave us,” said Ben. “We went through the hard times — the drought and depression — and he always trusted that the good Lord would get us through. He had a strong faith.”
So how do Ben and Tom feel about receiving the Deo Gratias Award? Very humble.
“I think there are a lot of people in the archdiocese who are as deserving as we are,” said Ben. “We’re honored, of course, but a little embarrassed. I feel that others have done an awful lot of things, too.”
“We’re being honored when we really should not be,” said Tom. “Each and every one of the things you see on my resume that we’ve been involved with or accomplished, we’ve been influenced by somebody else or a group of other people, and those are the people who should be honored.”
At the beginning of that long list, said Tom, are the priests of St. Joseph Parish, the Benedictine Sisters who taught in the school that started him on the path to do good for others, and, of course, his parents.
“Of course, I have to back up a bit and say I could have not accomplished any of that without my wife, my children, my family and my brother . . . to give me the time and opportunity to do those things,” said Tom. “I’m receiving the award to recognize and thank those other people who really are the cause of my success.”
Tom is grateful to receive the Deo Gratias Award, but it will be the last he’ll agree to accept. He’d like to see other folks, who are doing great things for the church, to be recognized, too.
“Those that know me, know. And those who don’t know me, that’s OK, about the things I’ve been involved in,” said Tom. “I think I’d like my obituary to read that way.”