April 21, 2024

The most unforgettable character I’ve ever met

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John Zdrazil would hate the fact I am writing about him. He was a humble man and didn’t like the spotlight shining on him. In fact, the last conversation I had with him, a couple of months ago, I asked if I could interview him for a story about his career, since he was officially retiring.

“There are more interesting people than me to interview,” he said.

He was wrong! Check out Zdrazil’s obituary in this week’s Herald to read what a full, interesting life he had.

Reader’s Digest used to publish an article in their monthly magazine titled “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Ever Met.” John Zdrazil is the most unforgettable character I’ve ever met, and I’m going to tell you why.

I first saw Zdrazil when he performed a stand-up comedy routine for a Prairie Wind Players variety show. It must have been soon after he had arrived in Grant County, because it was all about a big city kid’s impressions of rural west central Minnesota. It was hilarious, and I figured he was a professional comedian.

Later, when I learned he was a teacher at, what was then, West Central High School, I realized how lucky those students were.

As a reporter, I followed his directing at the high school and recall an amazing version of Godspell that still sticks in my mind.

Later it was the one act he directed: always different, always interesting, and always very, very good. He even wrote a few himself including one about the biblical Job, and one, a play that took place in the old Norcross school building. I especially recall his version of A 15 Minute Hamlet in which the Shakespeare classic was performed twice in 15 minutes. It was simply the best high school one act play I have ever seen.

I often wished I had a theater teacher like Zdrazil when I was in high school. For years when he taught WCA 9th graders a unit on The Diary of Anne Frank, he would bring them to Roosevelt Hall where a memorable production was staged several years earlier. He would have an actor or production person from that show explain the creative process. The field trip would conclude with a tour and history lesson on the building that has been listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.

Then, of course, there was Harvest Moon.  I remember asking him for a description of Harvest Moon for a promotional story I was writing in the newspaper.

“Well, it’s sort of a Prairie Home Companion radio show… but not as good,” he said.

He was wrong, it was great! Zdrazil was clearly channeling Garrison Keillor and his famous radio show, but set it in the rural west central Minnesota towns of Harvest and Moon. The two towns competed with each other in most things, but shared a school, whose mascot was the Harvest-Moon Combines. The show consisted of town gossip, news, weather, the crop outlook, church bulletins, and the like. Simple stuff, charming, and very, very funny.

A couple of years ago, he was persuaded to bring Harvest Moon back, twice, for the Prairie Wind Players.

I was lucky enough to direct Zdrazil in WCA’s Footloose, in which he played a strict, anti-dance minister in a small town. It was casting against type, and he was great.

When Zdrazil took a five-year sabbatical from teaching, in the late 1990s, I was asked to direct WCA one acts. I recall he was a fill-in preacher at Peace Lutheran Church in Barrett and I visited him to get some tips. 

He was not only very helpful, and filled me in on what judges to avoid and how directors from other schools tended to cheat. Knowledge my wife Susan and I found very helpful, as we produced one act plays at WCA for the next 20 years.

When Zdrazil returned to teaching, he would watch and critique rehearsals and volunteered to be One Act Contest Manager when WCA hosted.

Zdrazil and I shared a love of Bob Dylan, the Jayhawks, and often tipped each other off to a great new CD we found. 

Of course Zdrazil played guitar himself, admittedly not that well, and often had others play with him when he had to perform in public. His choice of material was… well… odd. I recall him asking me to learn the chords for “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” that we would perform at “Nelsonaloosa” at Veterans Park one hot summer day.

John Zdrazil, as a lay minister, confirmed one of my children, and was a wedding officiant for another. Two of my sons  became English teachers. I tend to think they were influenced by him. At least I hope so.

The point is John Zdrazil had a way of connecting with people better than anyone I have known. Allowing them to learn, experience, and shine, on their own.

Unforgettable? John Zdrazil was that and more, and the fact that he would not want me writing this column makes it all the more necessary that I do so.

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