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A brief history of Bob Zosel

PJ file photo by Steve Schulz Bob Zosel is seen here sharing a laugh with his daughter, Molly, as he received an award from the Wadena County Historical Society in a ceremony honoring him three years ago.

Editor's note: for years, local historian Bob Zosel has written articles for the Pioneer Journal, drawing from his extensive research of area businesses and institutions - to the point of becoming an institution unto himself. As his health is now failing, we offer this "Brief History of Bob Zosel" in the style of the columns he wrote as a tribute to the man.

Bob Zosel is known by many for his years of service to the community with Zosel's Wadena Hardware, his years of service afterward as a town historian, and his gentle kindness and wit to those who knew him personally.

Zosel was born July 7, 1924 in Wadena. The first house he lived in while growing up was located in what is now the parking lot of the Immanuel Lutheran Church on 2nd Street SE and was moved to 1239 2nd St. SE. In 1936, Bob's father built the house at 1109 Jefferson and they moved there until he left for the Army. After they got married they rented briefly an apartment in Curt Folkestad's house which was owned by Pansy Miller at the time, moved to the little house on Colfax between 3rd and 4th Street and then to the present house in 1951, which is on Bryant Avenue Southwest.

Zosel entered kindergarten in 1929, and in 1931, skipped second grade and went right to third.

"My sister was two years older than I was," Zosel recalled. "She always wanted to be a school teacher. My mother was a school teacher. So everything she learned in school, she came home and taught to me. So I knew my multiplication tables and I could spell."

That one-year advance ended up being a pivotal point for Zosel's early life.

"The way it turned out, it was a good thing," he explained. "If I had stayed in my regular class, I would have been infantry material."

By finishing school a year early, he went to work in the family hardware store, which traced its roots to Bob's grandfather, August Zosel.

That year, Zosel went with two friends to sign up for the war.

"Kenny Stuntebeck, Pete Johnson and I enlisted in the Air Corps," Zosel said. "If I had stayed in school, I would have signed up for Army Special Training Forces. I'd have gotten into that, and then around 1944 when they needed men they would have taken us. The Air Corps, if you enlisted in that, you stayed in that."

That difference made all the difference. Instead of being shipped off to the European front, Zosel spent the war in Miami Beach doing Air Corps training.

Before he went off to the service, Zosel described himself as a "jerk of a kid in high school."

"I was just like a lot of kids: I thought I knew it all," he said. "But I didn't."

He was prone to a prank or two. One time, he sent a kid who he thought needed to be taken down a notch over to the hardware store to pick up "striped paint." His father was not amused.

"That night my dad came home," he recalled. "He said, 'Don't ever let me see you do that.'"

A different, perhaps more serious Bob Zosel came back from Florida in 1946. He became even more involved in the family hardware store. He also got serious about a young woman he had known from his childhood.

His first encounter with his wife Jeane, in first grade, didn't go so well, at least according to her.

"She said I spit on her leg," Bob said. "I don't remember that."

Then, thinking about it, he acquiesced. "I probably did," he admitted with a smile.

That encounter happened when both were young kids. Much later, when Bob returned from the service, he was asked by a friend who was dating Jeane to look after her as he went to work in California. He obliged, but probably not in the way the friend intended.

"I've been looking after her ever since," Zosel said.

The two were married in 1948.

He said they always agreed they wanted six kids, and that's how many they had.

Mary and Margaret came on Nov. 19, 1948. Sara was born Jan. 10, 1950. Robert arrived Dec. 4, 1952. Jean was born Sept. 10, 1956. Molly followed on Nov. 28, 1958.

The family suffered a tragedy when Margaret passed away March 21, 1968, from injuries suffered in a car accident.

Music was a big part of his life. He enjoys listening to Sousa marches, and played the trombone in the Wadena Community Band.

Zosel thoroughly enjoyed his work, as he watched various other family members come and go from the business. He sold the business in 1992, when he was 68, and found a new passion.

He had always been interested in history, he said. He inherited many books from his father, although many were of his father's interests, like astronomy. Bob took to history books, including a lot of biographies. He said David McCollough is his favorite author.

The same year he sold the business, he started tinkering with collecting local history himself.

Based on his feeling that there should be a historical account of the businesses in Wadena, he starting making that list. He soon moved on to making a database of old obituaries. His ability and desire to collect and organize the history of Wadena was gaining momentum.

Zosel set about cataloging the earliest newspapers in Wadena County, starting with the Northern Pacific Farmer in 1877.

His catalog, organized in countless files in a Microsoft Access database, now reaches into the mid-1940s.

His work on history projects, on the hospital board, and general community volunteerism won him enough awards to completely cover a wall in his home office. He was a member of the Masonic Lodge (serving as master in 1956), the American Legion, the Jaycees, the Chamber of Commerce, the library board, Wesley Hospital (later Tri-County), the Wadena State Bank board, the Wadena City Parks board, Meals on Wheels, Friends of the Library, the food shelf, Wadena Citizens Band, various committees of the Wadena United Methodist Church, the community Thanksgiving meal, and he worked tirelessly on Black's Grove park and ski trail.

His awards are numerous and are all high honors, from being named the Person of the Year by the chamber to serving as parade grand marshal and being the Wadena County Outstanding Citizen.

He rarely talked about his accomplishments, and brushed them aside when asked about them in his typically modest style.

"With most of these awards, they finally get around to you," he said.

Zosel is a patient teacher, showing anyone who is interested how to use the microfilm machine at the library or sharing his research with anyone who took the time to learn it. Zosel's database of Wadena's history is a gift that genealogists and history buffs will have to cherish for centuries.

Zosel has touched countless lives in Wadena, and many people will hold many fond memories of him. But that's a story for another day.