By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Tom Zinkula grew up on a century farm about 3-1/2 miles southwest of Mount Vernon, Iowa. It was on this farm that the future bishop of the Diocese of Davenport developed his work ethic, faith and sense of humor, according to his sister, Donna (Zinkula) McKay.
“We learned at an early age that we all worked as part of our family,” Donna said. “We were always told to work hard and do our best … we felt a sense of accomplishment when completing a job well.”
The family of 11 lived in a three-bedroom home on the farm, founded in 1887 by the future bishop’s grandfather, Martin Zinkula. A creek cut through the property and the farm was adjacent to Palisade State Park, where the Cedar River flowed. “We loved the farm,” said Bishop Zinkula’s brother, Jerry.
He said the four sons shared one bedroom and the five daughters shared another bedroom. Eventually, a storage room was converted into an additional bedroom for the eldest daughter, Diane. “I guess you could say it was cozy,” Jerry said. Their kitchen table accommodated everyone, and served as both meal site and study area.
The Zinkulas raised hogs and, occasionally, cattle; the family also had a horse named “Frisky.” Most of the land was used to grow corn; the Zinkulas also grew oats, alfalfa and assorted produce.
Tom’s chores included baling hay, castrating hogs and digging thistles out of the fields. Tom took great pride in taking care of 20-plus rows of potatoes that were grown in the family’s garden, Donna said. “Tom learned independence, timeliness and follow-through by completing jobs on time without being monitored. Tom also learned a love of nature by being involved in farming, gardening and spending time outdoors.”
A sense of humor was also important. Donna said their father enjoyed a good joke, and Tom was known to play a light-hearted prank or two out on the farm. The family did not own a television, so in their free time the children generally played in the barns, climbed trees or played sports outside. If it was raining, they played board games, cards or read books.
Jerry said Tom used the farm to his advantage while training for athletics. “He rationalized that farm labor would make him stronger and better conditioned.” When Tom was in high school, the Mount Vernon football team practiced in the morning and late afternoon for “two a days” at the start of the football season. While teammates would generally sit inside and relax during the intermission, “Tom would come home after the first practice, bale hay for several hours, and shower again before returning to the football field.”
No matter how busy life on the farm got, Jerry said the Zinkula family “never, and I mean never, missed Sunday Mass. Not even snow drifts across the gravel road prevented us. Dad would simply back the car up and try again until the snow parted and allowed the car to pass through.”
The Zinkula family has since sold all but one house on the land. Lessons learned from life on the farm seem poised to bear fruit for years to come.