No one cheered more for our state than Jim
In all my years, I never met a better cheerleader for the entire state of Iowa than Jim Zabel.
Growing up in Waterloo in the late 1950s, I knew who Jim Zabel was due to his broadcasting of Iowa football games for WHO Radio in Des Moines. When I became a newspaperman covering Iowa sports, I got to know Jim on a professional basis.
In 1978, I was named sports editor of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, following Gus Schrader, who had held that position for over three decades and was a legend in eastern Iowa. The Gazette had a front row seat on the 50-year a line in the Hawkeye press box, and I ran into the man we called “Z” on many occasions.
I left sports in the mid 1980s to become a managing editor and then executive editor and publisher of newspapers, but would still see Jim occasionally. Each time, he greeted me like we were old friends who had not missed a beat for even a week.
There was something about Jim Zabel that was remarkable. He always was upbeat and full of life. He was one of the best-read and knowledgeable people on a variety of topics that I have known, and he loved history. He also was one of the happiest people I ever knew!
He passed away on May 24, at the age of 91. He was at his desk in his home in Phoenix, Arizona, and working on his very popular radio show, “Two Guys Named Jim,” on WHO Radio, one of the largest radio stations in the nation.
His wife, Jill, walked into his den to tell him one of his favorite movies, “Blazing Saddles” – a comedy that starred former Hawkeye football great Alex Karras – was on television, and found him slumped at his desk … gone.
“He died with his boots on,” said Eddie Podolak, the former Iowa and Kansas City Chiefs star that has been the color commentator for Iowa football for two decades
Zabel was born and raised in Davenport, graduating from Davenport High School in 1939. He was a track star and probably the most popular kid in his class. A fellow by the name of Jock Mahoney graduated a year ahead of Jim at DHS, and went on to a long movie and television career in Hollywood, playing Tarzan in two movies, and starring on two TV series, “Range Rider” and Yancey Derringer.”
In 1984, I brought Jock Mahoney to Iowa City for a film festival. Zabel called me to say he was coming to visit his old pal “Jocko.”
Jock was surprised to see Jim Zabel striding down the hallway at the Memorial Union in Iowa City, and the Davenport buddies spent two hours telling stories of “the good old days,” in both Davenport and Iowa City (Jock attended Iowa for two years before leaving for World War II). When Zabel departed, Mahoney said, “Jim is one of a kind … a lot of fun. It was wonderful seeing him again.”
Zabel hobnobbed with movie stars (he dated Cloris Leachman back in their Des Moines days), sports legends, and hosted various TV shows. He interviewed Ronald Reagan 18 times. Jim was very proud of the fact that he followed Reagan into the sports director position at WHO Radio.
Zabel loved Iowa History Journal. He was a subscriber from the very start and had me as a guest on his radio show at least a dozen times since we started publishing in 2009. He bragged about the magazine on the show, and in private.
When I wrote the book Triumph and Tragedy: The Inspiring Stories of Football Legends Fred Becker, Jack Trice, Nile Kinnick and Johnny Bright, there was only one man I wanted to write the foreword. I asked Jim to do it and he agreed immediately. He wrote a tremendous foreword.
Jim Zabel is gone from the scene now and Iowa History Journal has lost a huge booster. WHO Radio has lost its biggest star since Ronald Reagan, and the state of Iowa has lost perhaps the greatest cheerleader it ever had.
Several years ago, in an interview, he told someone he wanted just three words on his tombstone – “He had fun.”
That he did. Rest in peace, Jim Zabel. You ran the race, and ran it extremely well. Your legacy will live on….
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)