Oral History of Mel Zehnder
Interviewed by Roxanne (Last Name Unknown), about 2003
Roxanne: What do you remember about your parents and family?
Mel: I'm from a family of eight children, second youngest.
Mel: Yes, eight, and I grew up on a farm and the first language I learned to speak was German.
Roxanne: Do you still remember how to speak German?
Mel: Yes, I do. I grew up on a dairy farm in Frankenmuth, Michigan. When I was five years old my parents started to teach me to speak English so I would be ready for school. So, yes, I speak both languages.
Roxanne: What were your mom and dad's name?
Mel: My dad's name was Harold and my mom's name was Erna, and they're both deceased.
Roxanne: Can you tell me something about your childhood?
Mel: What I remember was living with a large family and we pretty much learned how to get along with each other, cooperate, and, being the second youngest, you learn to be good to older brothers and sisters.
Roxanne: Did you like having eight brothers and sisters?
Mel: Yeah, yeah. I didn't know anything different, so it's hard to say. But we grew up fine. I was the first one to go off to college and my younger brother, who is two years younger than I am, followed me also.
Roxanne: What was school like?
Mel: School was for the most part a good experience. I went to a Lutheran school the first eight grades and to a high school in Frankenmuth and I remember we had 46 students in my class all through grade school all in one room with one teacher and I don't remember anyone having a problem with that.
Roxanne: What was your high school called?
Mel: The high school was called Frankenmuth High School.
Roxanne: What about college?
Mel: College was Concordia University.
Roxanne: What were the dates you attended?
Mel: 1958 to 1963.
Roxanne: What about high school?
Mel: High school was 1954 to 1958.
Roxanne: So, you went to college after high school?
Roxanne: What degrees do you...
Mel: That was the first time I had ever been out of the state of Michigan. When I went off to college.
Roxanne: What degrees do you have?
Mel: I have a bachelor's degree in education and a master's degree in education, and I have a degree in nursing home administration. That was at Wayne State University.
Roxanne: Why did you decide to become an executive director there?
Mel: It's sort of a long story. I changed from teaching school for 14 years at the junior high level in Napoleon, then I decided, at the time there was a new retirement village that was going to be developed in my home town of Frankenmuth, so I left teaching and went there and I was project coordinator for the development of the retirement village. I was there seven years, then I found that they were building a nursing home here in Napoleon and my wife was originally from Napoleon, and of course I had been here for 14 years, so I applied to come back and be the administrator for the nursing home here. And I got that job and I was there for 11 years and then my boss wanted me to start a new retirement villate near Toledo in Holland, Ohio. So I went up there in 1996 and opened that in 1997. I was there until 2002, then the director here left and moved to Florida.
Roxanne: Did you get married?
Mel: I have been married twice. My second wife died about a year and a half ago. Right now I am single. Oh, yeah, a widower I guess is what they call it.
Roxanne: What is your current address?
Mel: [Street address omitted for privacy reasons], Grand Rapids, Ohio.
Roxanne: What is the zip code?
Roxanne: And what is your birth date?
Mel: February 2, 1940. I was born in Birch Run, Michigan.
Roxanne: What can you tell me about your training for this position,
Mel: While I was developing a retirement village I went to night school in Detroit, Michigan. The course was nursing home admnistration. After completing that I had to be licensed in the state of Michigan. And then a couple years later, when I transferred to Ohio, I had to take the Ohio test to get my Ohio license.
Roxanne: So, you had to take the test all over again?
Mel: Yes, in each state you have to re-take the state test, but I didn't have to re-do the national test.
Roxanne: What were the best years like?
Mel: Well, the best year is always the one coming. Actually, I guess it is hard to say which decade is better than the other. Each decade has its ups and downs. I don't look back a whole lot. I look more to the future, because you can't really do anything about what is done, but you can do something to help the future. You can decide to have a good day or you can have a bad day. Nobody can make you have a bad day unless you decide to have a bad day. I'm kind of a positive thinker.
Roxanne: I know you don't like to think about the past, but what was a typical day like back then?
Mel: Back? How far back?
Roxanne: Just from when you were younger.
Mel: Typical day? I really don't remember. I'm too old. A typical day was getting up when the sun rose. I am an early bird type of person and doing what ever needs done. I'm one that likes to do the hardest things in front of me early in the morning, because you get the tough stuff out of the way first thing and the rest of the day becomes more pleasant. You don't have any anxiety over something, or if there is something really tough or negative or difficult I like to get it done and it's easier to coast through the rest of the day, plus I'm the type of person where my brain and body work better in the morning.
Roxanne: What events did you remember that were important to the period?
Mel: Well I think I had quite an experience and that I've had the teaching experiences where I did a lot of coaching.
Roxanne: Did you like doing that?
Mel: Yes, I did a lot of coaching while I was teaching Junior High. I coached basketball, football and track. I had a lot of success with that. So that was good. And since I got into long term care and elder housing administration, I also developed and opened three different campuses. In my life time I opened the Independent Village which has 252 apartments for seniors. And I opened the Lutheran Home here in Napoleon in 1985. Then, the Lutheran Village in Wolf Creek in 1997. Those where all unique experiences and difficult, a lot of hard work, but satisfying.
Roxanne: Looking back what changes would you like to see?
Mel: Well, I think 10 or 15 years ago we probably in my opinion had a kinder world and in a sense people had more respect for each other and I think part of the teen problem now is the news media because they focus so much on the negative. The front page of the paper is virtually all bad stuff that happened and the same with TV. News. They focus on all the negative stuff for the most part instead of the positive and I think we became a negative society. Trust is not there, people don't trust each other as much as they used to. I remember the days when people used to leave the car keys in the ignition and park their cars and go into the grocery store and not worry about something being stolen or the car being gone. I just think it could be a kinder world.
Roxanne: So you wish you could go back?
Mel: I'm a realist so I know it's not going to happen. You can't go back. It would be nice if we became kinder to each other but I am realistic enough to not expect me living again in an era where we can leave the keys in the car ignition and expect the car to be there the next day.
Roxanne: Well it depends where you're at, too?
Mel: I think Napoleon and northwest Ohio is a unique area. It's certainly different from Toledo. People are a little kinder here and more trusting. I find working with various staff that here they're much more dedicated and much more attached to the residents because some are their relatives and people they know and there's more stability. People have worked here for 20 years and are still here and you don't find that in bigger cities very much. People move around more.
Roxanne: That where a small town is more closed?
Mel: Yeah, some people think of it as a negative but I look at it as positive. Generally people are friendly in rural society.
Roxanne: Is anything else that you think is important to add that we did not cover?
Mel: No, except for one thing I would like to say, is that you can never have too much education, never stop learning. I am 65 years old and I'm still learning. I think if you stop learning, you stop living, because people that think the best that continue to learn and read and so forth.
Roxanne: Do you have any honors or awards or other recognition?
Mel: Over the years I've gotten some awards but I really don't like to dwell on that. I guess I would like to ask you a question.
Mel: What do you plan to do in the future? What are you aspirations for the future?
Roxanne: Well, when I get out of here I going to school for pre-medication, pre-medical and try to become a pediatrician.
Mel: Very good. Good goals.
Roxanne: Do you have any special interests or hobbies?
Mel: I enjoy golfing during the summer time. It's probably one of my favorite passtimes because it's a combination of being outdoors and getting exercise because I also walk when I go. It's, for me, relaxation. I like music, good music.
Roxanne: Do you think that has changed a part of you from the music from your generation?
Mel: No, I think most of the music now, I can't understand the lyrics. I guess I have my opinion on some of the music of today. I like the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's, type of music for the most part. I listen to anything, from country to rhythm and blues to rock and roll to even classical music.
Roxanne: So how long exactly where you in school?
Mel: Grade school, High school, and 4 years college undergrad, master's degree over six summers while I was teaching. My half a year ot so of night school to get my Nursing Home Administrated Education. Then I am required to get 20 clock hours a year to retain my license as a Nursing Home Administrator.
Roxanne: What would you say is favorite passtime in life?
Mel: Probably going to school and college.
Roxanne: Why would that be?
Mel: Those where the fun years, because you had no responsible basically exceptt to study. I mean students now might look on it and say, boy that's no fun, but when you're in school, the rest of the world goes by and you don't notice and once you're out of school, then you are a part of the scene and you need to pay attention to what is going on around you. I think the pace of life is picking up. You learn at a much faster pace in the world now then it used to be. 35-40 years ago the pace was slower. Now we have instant messaging, we have cell phones, we have fax machines, phones in the cars. Everything is faster. It seems like a faster pace.
Roxanne: Any historical event you remember?
Mel: Probably the first thing I remember about the world around us is the Korean War when I was young, and, of course, when I was in college the Vietnam War was a very big issue. I remember exactly where I was when Kennedy got assassinated., John F. Kennedy. I will always remember that. Outside of that, nothing really pops up at me right now?
Roxanne: What was it like when you heard about Kennedy's assassination?
Mel: It was one of those things of disbelief that you just would not think that could happen in the United States. It was a sad, sad situation and then a couple days later when the supposed assassin of Kennedy was shot right on TV as the cameras where on. Those events really changed a lot of people. It was sort of a shock to people.
Roxanne: What about the wars? Did you know any body who was in the wars?
Mel:I really didn't know anybody that was killed in the wars, but, yeah, I
remember them. I had older brothers that were in the military during the Korean War.
Roxanne: What was that like?
Mel: I guess it was sort of scary in a way, 'cause they were gone and we had to, of course, being on a farm there was work to do, so when they were gone we had to do more work.
Roxanne: You didn't like it when they were gone?
Mel: No, I was glad to see then come home. Those were some tough years!
Roxanne: How would you say life was like when the war was going on? Was it bad or was it the same?
Mel: It was the same. There was no direct effect. It was just knowing that some of the boys were gone.
Roxanne: Nowadays they show everything that going on in the war. Back then did they do the same?
Mel: No, back then, the Vietnam War, there was news coverage, but even not as direct as it is today. The Korean War, all you got was news reports from news realms. I remember the first TV was when I was about 14 years old, black and white snow flakes all over the screen. It only had TV shows on from 6 o'clock at night till 10 o'clock. Then they went off the air, so it was different. And, plus, they didn't have news cameras all over the world like they do now with CNN, all the different networks. We're really a global news media now, something happens on the other side of the world we know about it immediately.
Roxanne: Do you think it's better that way or do you think it was better not knowing anything?
Mel: Well, information is good but it's like I said before, it makes the pace of life faster.
Roxanne: During the war were there a lot of protests?
Mel: During the Korean War there was no protest, but during the Vietnam War, yes, toward the end, the last few yeas there was a lot of protest especially on college campuses. In fact, thaf is sort of why we got out of Vietnam.
Roxanne: Did you ever participate in a protest?
Mel: The protestors were mostly in what I call Liberal Arts Schools, Colleges.
Roxanne: Well, I think I'm done with everything.
Roxanne: I asked you all the questions.
Mel: Okay, thank you.
Roxanne: Thank you.
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