Remembering John Zgoda, who worked at the city since 1977The death of longtime Hastings resident John Zgoda shocked many of those who knew and worked with him. His battle with esophageal cancer began just last May and claimed his life Jan. 10.
By: Katrina Styx, The Hastings Star-Gazette
The death of longtime Hastings resident John Zgoda shocked many of those who knew and worked with him. His battle with esophageal cancer began just last May and claimed his life Jan. 10.
John Zgoda was born in Hendricks, Minn., and came to Hastings when he was just 6 months old. He was probably most widely known as a city employee. He first joined the ranks of city staff in 1977 as a part-time meter reader, said Director of Public Works Tom Montgomery. He moved into a full time position with the utility department after that and continued to work his way up through the ranks. His employment was marked by a lot of hard work, dedication to his job and a constant desire to improve himself, Montgomery said. The effort paid off.
“In 2005 he was named the first ever public works superintendent,” he said.
John Zgoda was the city’s public works expert, and also a model of reliability.
“You can always count on John,” Montgomery said. “He got here early, stayed late, anything that happened, John was on top of it.”
Because of his long history with the department, he knew the city’s system better than anyone else on staff, even through the various upgrades that have been made. He was instrumental in the rebuilding of the city’s hydropower plant from 2001 to 2003 and also for the construction of the water treatment plant in 2006 and the public works addition in 2008. In 2009 he was awarded the Superintendent of the Year award.
His attention to detail and his desire to be the expert on each of his projects was “unparalleled,” Montgomery said.
“John was special,” he said.
Outside of work, John Zgoda was known as a family man.
“His family came first,” said his son, Jim Zgoda.
Jim Zgoda recalled how his father had been heavily involved in softball, but when Jim and his brother got old enough to get involved in baseball and then football, he gave up softball to coach their baseball and football teams.
He adored his three grandchildren as well.
“When he wasn’t feeling well and we’d stop over with our two kids, he’d sit up and light up,” Jim Zgoda said.
As the boys got older, John Zgoda became more involved with the Sons of the American Legion. He started attending meetings here in Hastings, then went on to attend some state conventions, which led him to get involved at the state level. He would eventually become the state commander for the Sons of the American Legion, and also served on national committees for the organization.
For several years, he would hold a special hunt for disabled veterans near Brainerd, making sure that they got a chance to have fun and get out for a hunt.
John Zgoda was an avid hunter and fisherman. While he mostly hunted deer and pheasant, he did get to go up to the Boundary Waters with a couple friends to hunt moose.
“He was pretty proud of himself when he got the moose,” Jim Zgoda said.
Being helpful was another side of John Zgoda’s personality. When his father, who had been doing yard work for a neighbor, got too old to do so, it was John Zgoda who stepped up to take over the work.
“Before he got sick, there wasn’t very many days or nights when he was at home just hanging out,” Jim Zgoda said. “He’d be out helping others.”
John Zgoda had a tendency to be relatively quiet around those he didn’t know well, his son said, and it might have made him seem rough to some people.
“Once you got to know him and you knew him real well, he was a very caring individual, and he’d do anything he could to help you out,” Jim Zgoda said.
His quietness however may have led people to believe his illness wasn’t as serious as it actually was.
“He was such a strong person and didn’t want others to worry about him,” Jim Zgoda said. “I think he was a lot sicker than what he had let on.”
Last May, John Zgoda got the first clue that something was wrong. Certain foods would get stuck in his esophagus and cause him to throw up, his son said. He went to the doctor a couple weeks later, and in the end of June had an endoscopy done in Hastings. On July 1, he was diagnosed with stage IV esophageal cancer. It’s a type of cancer doctors can’t test for early, Jim Zgoda said, and patients who are diagnosed with it generally don’t show any symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage. In John Zgoda’s case, the tumor had already wrapped around his esophagus near his stomach. A second opinion confirmed the diagnosis, and treatment began.
Around the end of July he started chemotherapy, taking pills daily and getting and IV treatment every three weeks, and it helped. By September, “he could eat pretty much whatever he wanted,” Jim Zgoda said.
But one of the medications he was on was making him sick, so his doctors decided to have him stop taking it, since the tumor was shrinking. It helped – while he wasn’t feeling great, he was doing better for a couple weeks, his son said, and was able to work and get out of the house. Another scan in early November, however, showed that the cancer had spread to three spots in his liver. Doctors figured his body was no longer responding to the original chemotherapy and put him on a new treatment, but it didn’t work.
“He said he didn’t feel right from the time that he started it,” Jim Zgoda said.
“I think the cancer was too far advanced for that treatment to help.”
On Jan. 7, John Zgoda and his wife flew to Fort Meyers, Fla., for a vacation. They wanted to forget about the illness and take some time to relax. The couple had a history of taking a vacation every year on their anniversary, Jim Zgoda said, and they had even bought a time share to use once John Zgoda retired. He would have been able to retire next summer.
Once they arrived in Florida, they were able to have dinner together and visit Jim Zgoda’s uncle, but after just about a day there he had the seizure that took his life.
“We really don’t know what caused the seizure,” Jim Zgoda said.
They can say it was a complication of the cancer, he said, and that there was a possibility the cancer had spread to the back of his brain.
The immediate family – John Zgoda’s wife and three children – were all able to get to Florida to say their goodbyes, which is just how Jim Zgoda suspects his father would have wanted.