Longtime Chaminade High School English Department chairman, teacher, and Speech and Debate team coach Bro. George Zehnle, S.M. passed away peacefully Sunday. He was 74. Bro. George had been suffering from a long battle against Parkinson's disease.
A wake was held on Wednesday, April 25 in Chaminade's Darby Auditorium immediately followed by a Mass of Christian Burial.
To offer a reflection on his life is no easy task. Generations of Chaminade men would agree that Bro. George was a master of the written and spoken word.
"There was no pretense in him, his writing, or his speech. What you saw in Bro. George was what you got," said Bro. Stephen Balletta, director of the Chaminade Marianist Community, who learned from Bro. George as a student and became an English teacher himself. "He was an informed and witty contributor to any conversation and an extremely articulate and well-spoken man."
Raised in Jamaica, George Zehnle graduated from Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School before making first vows as a Marianist in 1962. Bro. Richard Hartz lived in community with Bro. George from 1966.
"He had a good sense of humor and could debate well – not just coach it," Bro. Richard remembered. "He was a fine religious who was open with sharing his thoughts and opinions and was most professional in his work."
For 40 years as English department chairman, Bro. George updated and improved syllabi, coordinated the efforts of Chaminade's English teachers, and supervised the English program. Many students still likely remember memorizing Hamlet's soliloquy in Bro. George's English IV class, finding subtle symbolism in "The Great Gatsby," keeping their writing simple, and learning never to say "due to the fact that..."
"But what I find most memorable about Bro. George, and perhaps lesser known, was his steadiness," Bro. Stephen thought. "All the years he taught, he handled so many things and finished them in a timely fashion – and he challenged people to think, which made him ideally suited for Speech and Debate."
Practically his entire time at Chaminade, Bro. George coached the team that repeatedly sent its speakers and debaters to local, state, and national tournaments. He is known nationally for the success of his students. Bro. George devoted countless Saturdays to tournaments, countless hours to preparing competitors for their rounds.
"He was completely dedicated to it," Bro. Stephen said.
Bro. John McGrory spent many years coaching alongside Bro. George. "As a brother, he inspired me that prayer is where you derive your strength for whatever else you do," Bro. John said. "As a Speech and Debate leader, he taught me fairness. Someone may have disagreed with his decisions, but he never showed favoritism or spite. He was meticulously fair. As a coach, he taught me perspective. He gave his work 100%, he gave you 100%, and he gave prayer 100%. His deep commitment to prayer made him the effective teacher and mentor that he was."
For a number of years, Bro. George served as coordinating editor of the Chaminade News and its earlier iteration, the Chaminade Newsletter. Bro. George could often be found helping woodworkers furnishing the school and residence or cooking or painting. He was also extremely punctual – often early for Mass or community prayer.
Bro. Timothy Driscoll, provincial superior of the Marianist Province of Meribah, reflected, "Bro. George was a true brother of Mary. He gave his whole life to her service, and to his many thousands of students. Bro. George loved the Word of God and generously shared that love as a consummate teacher of English and an outstanding Speech and Debate coach."
Bro. George became ill within the last decade. Only his disease could take him from the classroom and his Chaminade Family.
"It is sad and ironic that Parkinson's afflicted him most and most noticeably in his speech – no longer was he able to convey what was on his mind" Bro. Stephen explained. "But what I noticed most was his courage. He wasn't one to talk about his feelings, but when I asked him about what he was starting to endure, he said, 'I don't fear dying. I pray for patience for the years in front of me.'" A lasting memory for Bro. Stephen will be the twinkle in Bro. George's eyes upon meeting young men who had chosen to enter the Marianist community. His joy for them and for God's work somehow fought through what his illness did to his body.
Bro. George is predeceased by his father, Frederick, and his mother, Agnes. Students may remember visiting Mrs. Zehnle during service trips to the Queen of Peace Residence in Queens Village, where she spent her final years. Bro. George also had two siblings – Richard '51 (RIP) and Barbara (RIP), a brother-in-law, Donald (RIP), and three nephews – Richard Henley '80 (RIP), Robert Henley '81, and Michael Henley '83 (RIP).
This writer remembers Bro. George saying that the word was the highest art form; after all, it is what God chose to communicate his message. One can only imagine the beautiful stories Bro. George is sharing with the Lord this day, and his delight being with his Creator and friend.