John Zdrazil was a teacher by trade, but it was through his wit, compassion, faith and generosity that he left his mark on residents of Elbow Lake, Minn.
He taught teenagers about the utility of the semicolon and the history of rock music in the state as an English teacher for more than 35 years at West Central Area Secondary School (WCA). He championed civic causes, paid others' library fines, filled pulpits at churches when there was a void, and organized celebrations honoring local veterans.
"If there was a place he could support, he did it," said Gail Hedstrom, former director of the Thorson Memorial Library.
Zdrazil died May 28 of multiple myeloma at his home in Elbow Lake. He was 59.
Zdrazil arrived in Elbow Lake in 1985 with the deep school spirit he developed at Hopkins Eisenhower High School and Bethel University. At Eisenhower, he performed a wildly popular Blues Brothers homage and "gave school deep meaning and positive character," said his brother, Thomas, of Columbia Heights.
In Elbow Lake, he wore a North Stars jersey and ice skates with guards on them to school to celebrate Hockey Day in Minnesota. He donned the famous hockey hair, too. He was a part of nearly every homecoming skit at WCA and tapped students to create parodies of small-town life for the annual "Harvest Moon," a knockoff of the popular Garrison Keillor radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," said John Kreft, a longtime colleague at WCA.
He brought his never-lacking creativity to the classroom where he taught students to write concisely and encouraged them to find their voice, Kreft said. "It was OK not to be perfect. He allowed students to embrace themselves."
And they embraced him. Before Zdrazil retired this spring, WCA seniors several times selected him as "Most Influential Educator," including the class of 2021. Zdrazil also created the Sunshine Fund at WCA "to take care of students and staff in times of need," Kreft said.
Zdrazil played guitar for the city's annual Flekkefest and drove the pace car for the 5K run. He organized a library-a-thon featuring 24 hours of activities, including an Edgar Allan Poe reading and serving Fruit Loops at 4 a.m. When people could not pay fines, Zdrazil covered them.
"John Zdrazil is the type of person that every community wishes for," said Mayor Deb Hengel. "John was generous in sharing his time and talents with his community."
Later in life, Zdrazil earned master's degrees in creative writing and liberal studies. He earned a mortuary science degree from the University of Minnesota. For graduation, Zdrazil changed the lyrics of the Village People's song "YMCA" to "NFDA" for the National Funeral Directors Association and sang it at the ceremony.
"He had a flair of doing witty things," said his father, Jim, of St. Louis Park. "He had a way with words."
Funny, smart and articulate, Zdrazil comforted many with his words as he conducted funerals in the area and filled in at Aastad, Rock Prairie and Peace Lutheran churches when the congregations were without a pastor, his brother said. Though he never served in the military, Zdrazil honored veterans by organizing celebrations at WCA and placing flags on their graves on Memorial Day, said Patty Benson of the Grant County Historical Society.
"He was humble and more than willing to help and honor these people," she said.
Zdrazil was a huge fan of the State Fair and wanted to be there from open to close. Time was never an issue for Zdrazil, his brother said.
"He was a coffee drinker," Thomas said. "There were lots of late nights."
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768