A blind aunt and Uncle Sam changed Gene Zeigler’s life

Gene Zeigler looks over some of the photos from his extraordinary life Wednesday, April 6, 2022. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

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Gene Zeigler looks over some of the photos from his extraordinary life Wednesday, April 6, 2022. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

SPRINGFIELD — Like so many born at the time, Gene Zeigler’s childhood is memorable for what Depression-era West Virginia and much of Appalachia didn’t have: paved roads, electricity, running water, indoor plumbing or, of course, money.

He also grew up knowing what he didn’t want to be: A coal miner.

On a recent morning in a one-story retirement home off of Red Coach Drive, Zeigler told the story of how a blind aunt and his Uncle Sam helped him escape the mines for a life that has taken him to 49 states, 25 countries and, finally, retirement in his adopted home town, Springfield.

Zeigler’s childhood memories aren’t without their highlights.

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Tom Stafford

Tom Stafford

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Tom Stafford

One is of his mother sending him on what to a 4-year-old must have been a great adventure: to deliver two dozen eggs to a store two miles away and return with the money from the sale.

“It was a little mining village not far from the railroad, and I had to cross a trestle and a creek on the way.”

His half-mile walks to his blind Aunt Josephine’s house beginning at age 5, though would shape his life.

“She taught me my ABCs, she taught me how to tell time, she taught me how to tie my shoes,” Zeigler said.

He credits her interest in him for his skipping third grade in the one-room school house of his primary years and an interest in education that was rare in his community. (Zeigler’s only breach of perfect attendance involved an annual day of deer hunting with a friend.)

When in high school, he regularly walked the four-miles to school — early enough to fire up the cookstoves at Arthurville High School and got his lunches free of charge. Arthurville was a model community the FDR Administration’s attempt to address rural poverty.

Now 92, Zeigler attributes his longevity to those eight-mile round-trips, which turned to 16 miles if he returned to school for evening activities. On trips both ways he heard the sound of wildcats in the woods.

Zeigler graduated second in his class in 1946. That was one year too late to be congratulated by Eleanor Roosevelt, who had attended the ceremony the year before, her last as First Lady. No matter. The occasion was special for Zeigler because, as runner up to the principal’s daughter, “I had the sympathy of the whole class.”

The recipient of a Bausch & Lomb college scholarship, he was unable to afford the remaining costs to go to college. So, two weeks after turning 17, he followed the lead of cousins who had served in World War II and enlisted in the Navy, hoping to get an education on the GI Bill.

His 10-year wait began with basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago. His life was then forever changed when he reported to Aviation Fundamentals School in Jacksonville, Fla., and was informed he would not have the opportunity to be an airplane mechanic.

“I went to school to be a weather observer,” he said, and was planning to leave the Navy after his four-year commitment when the outbreak of the Korean War intervened.

The Navy offered him both advanced forecasting school and a promotion to the rank of petty officer first class, and he happily signed on.

At the Navy Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C., “I was responsible for getting all the weather maps plotted” and “coded the messages to ships at sea” in the region.

During two cruises in the Mediterranean aboard the U.S.S. Coral Sea, he both served assistant ship’s meteorologist and “got to see the Holy Lands.” His stops included Bethlehem and Jerusalem; communities the Apostle Paul addressed in his Biblical epistles; and the Colossus of Rhodes and the Roman Coliseum and Acropolis.

In 1956, about to complete 10 years of service, he was planning to use the GI Bill to get that college education when he met Beryl Snellings, a graduate of then Wittenberg College in a church social group.

Two weeks later, Zeigler made a spring-time visit to a campus in full bloom and didn’t bother to visit Wooster College, to which he also had been accepted.

In a series of courses in chemistry, physics, math and engineering drawing, “I bit off a little more than I could chew,” he said. But the purchase of a Pontiac Star Chief with chrome skirts made his college life more enjoyable. And $90 a month he received from the GI Bill supplemented the $1,000 he earned each summer at a coal-burning power plant to earn Zeigler a debt-free diploma.

The extra cash he picked up as an instructor at Springfield’s Arthur Murray Dance Studio also introduced him to Geneva Fannin just after graduation. The two married Feb. 4, 1961, and he re-enlisted in the Navy.

With 10 years already served and the opportunity to retire after 10 more, “it was the logical path for me,” Zeigler said.

It started with Officer Candidate School. Then two months of Communications School in Newport, R.I., set the stage for the rest of an eventful career.

Service stops included:

  • 1962 -- Iceland, where he did forecasts for radar planes tracking events between Greenland and Iceland with an eye to Russian activities in the Northern Atlantic.
  • 1962-64 -- London, where, while he did forecasts and burned classified documents and the Zeiglers toured England, Scotland and Wales, and filmed Winston Churchill’s funeral procession from a spot recommended by a golf buddy who was an English Bobby. The Zeiglers’ daughter, Karen, was born there Oct. 14, 1964.
  • 1965 –Pawtuxet River, Md., where he studied oceanographic forecasting and learned how a submarine could go undetected in pocket of cooler water surrounded by warmer water. Because the unit was a backup detail for ceremonial events in Washington, his troops stood at attention as Zeigler managed a sword salute during Lyndon B. Johnson’s inaugural parade Jan. 20, 1965.
  • 1966-70 -- Jacksonville, Fla., where he was a hurricane forecaster and research officer who represented the Navy at national hurricane forecaster conventions in Miami.
  • 1970-72 -- Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, Calif., where he studied the new field of satellite forecasting.
  • 1972-4 Vietnam, where he put his hurricane and satellite forecasting skills to work to advise an admiral on how to keep his ships away from typhoons on the South China Sea. He also used training on cloud seeding to try to direct rain to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which the North Vietnamese used as a supply highway.

In the post-Vietnam troop drawdown, funding was cut from a program that would have sent Zeigler to two more years of post-graduate study, and Zeiglers left a 23-year Navy for Springfield.

With a daughter to send to college, Zeigler earn his teaching credentials at Wittenberg and used his extensive Naval education to teach earth sciences in Vandalia schools, at Springfield’s South High School, and as a substitute in most of the Clark County schools.

Having survived his first wife, then a second woman he reconnected with after her death, Zeigler remains sharp and active in his 90s.

“I’ve got my hearing pretty well,” he offers, “and I still got my original teeth.”

Chemotherapy treatments last fall also allowed him to make a liar of a doctor who said “I’ll give you until Christmas.” Now in remission, he keeps himself connected with others through membership in Northside Baptist Church.

He also has memories of a career that had him more often under the sky rather than the roof of a mine – and of a blind aunt whose interest in him made all the difference.

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