While I have always considered myself a generous person, occasionally I’ve had the opportunity to witness the giving of others that makes me question the motives behind whatever level of generosity I may possess.
In this regard, I think about my father’s college roommate who I affectionately referred to as Uncle Charles. A successful businessman in central Pennsylvania my “uncle” always insisted on picking up the check, whenever we were out for lunch, drinks or dinner. Even when others would try to reciprocate, he would have none of it. Hosting friends and family in his home or at many of the haunts he frequented was just what he did.
A few years ago, while visiting a friend at his new home in Florida I remarked at the lovely collection of unique pens he had on display in his office. After doing so, he asked me which one I liked the most and insisted I pick one to take home. Of course, I protested, but he would hear nothing of it, explaining that he’d like me to have one and would be offended if I didn’t accept his offer of a gift. I left his home that day with a blue and metallic Mont Blanc pen. I use the pen regularly and smile as I reflect on my friend’s generosity.
I have some friends who are in the process of restarting a trade school shuttered over a year ago when the corporate owners of several technical schools around the country determined that the school didn’t fit into their business model. Recently I learned that wanting to reopen the schools quickly once government approval is received, my friends have kept members of the staff on their payroll to retain them even though the school has not had students or offered courses in over a year. My friends are doing this joyfully.
While I site a myriad of other examples, none can surpass the story that appeared on Easter Sunday in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that I’ve reprinted below. Attempting to read this story out loud to family I found myself overcome with emotions several times. Please let me know what effect it has on you.
This London Multimillionaire Never Forgot Where He’s From: North Braddock, Class of ’49
Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By Tim Grant - April 4, 2021
The house that Rich and Lisa Yezovich own in North Braddock is a miracle and a blessing.
It was given to them free and clear nine years ago by a multimillionaire in London — a man they had never met and didn’t know.
“It’s hard to express how grateful we are that he has blessed us with this house and everything he has done for us,” said Lisa Yezovich, 50.
The man is Jim Zockoll. He is a 90-year-old North Braddock native who made a fortune building businesses overseas. He has lived in London for the past six decades. But he never lost contact with his Class of 1949 North Braddock Scott High School classmates.
Mr. Zockoll’s life is that of the hometown boy who did good. And his generosity to former high school classmates and to people still living in North Braddock is the stuff of legend.
He helps people with medical expenses and takes his classmates on annual vacations to Florida and Las Vegas. For years, he has attended and paid for the annual high school reunion, and he makes sure the 20 to 25 people who attend go home with hundreds of dollars in prize money from the games they play, which are based mostly on what the attendees can remember about teachers, classmates and events from high school.
London businessman Jim Zockoll wanted to give every resident of North Braddock a turkey last Christmas but decided it would be less complicated to distribute $62,000 worth of gift cards instead. All North Braddock residents — 2,045 people — received a $30 Giant Eagle grocery store gift card in December from Mr. Zockoll and his brother along with a note that read:
“Happy Holidays, North Braddock residents. In loving memory of our mother, Margaret (O’Toole) Zockoll, who once lived at 810 Spring Street, North Braddock. Jim and Fred Zockoll.”
To him, this all just makes sense.
“My classmates are the only steady friends I’ve ever had,” Mr. Zockoll said recently. “How could I not be devoted to them and North Braddock and the people there? You can’t spend $140 million on yourself. You find yourself acting like a big shot and helping out all of your relatives and friends.” Mr. Zockoll said he has not been put in a position to have to turn down donation requests so far.
Gifting is a theme that runs through his life and relationships.
But none of his acts of generosity is as deeply personal to him as the house he gave to the Yezovich family — although his reasons for buying it had nothing to do with them really.
The house was his effort to repay someone else for an unforgettable act of kindness that saved him one cold, stormy night when he was 16 and became suddenly homeless with nowhere to go.
His life was turned upside down when his mother died. He was 15. Ten months later, his father remarried, sold the house and left.
“It doesn’t hit you until it happens,” Mr. Zockoll said. “All I had was a Goods shopping bag. I went to school the next day and cleaned up in the toilet before classes, and that’s what I did for three or four days.”
He bounced around from one friend’s house to another until his younger sister and her husband allowed him to move into their home in Swissvale. But there were strict rules.
London businessman Jim Zockoll grew up in North Braddock. After hanging with his friends in North Braddock one night, he realized he didn’t have enough fare for a streetcar, which meant he had to walk back to Swissvale in the rain. He missed his 11 p.m. curfew. When he finally got to the house, he found his clothes packed in two Goods shopping bags on the porch.
Homeless again, he walked back to North Braddock. While he sat on the curb at the corner of Bell and Jones avenues and cried in the rain, he thought of one of his mother’s friends — a cleaning lady at North Braddock Scott. He didn’t know her name, but he knew she lived on Anne Street.
It was 3 a.m. He knocked on a random door, and it happened to be hers.
“The prettiest woman I ever saw opened the door,” Mr. Zockoll said. “I’m standing there soaking wet, and the first thing she said in broken English was, ‘If I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake.’” Her name was Mary Curran. She was an Irish widow with five other mouths to feed.
She took him in for two years and raised him as her own until he finished high school. The day after graduation, he had breakfast with her — homemade bread and butter and tea — then she cried as she told him she could no longer afford to keep him.
“I kissed her goodbye and enlisted in the Air Force,” Mr. Zockoll said. He spent three tense days with his estranged father in Mount Oliver and was off to boot camp in Wichita Falls, Texas.
He never came back to North Braddock to live. “When I received my first military pay — $30 a month — I went downtown [in Wichita Falls] and bought a dress for Mrs. Curran.”
Years later, when Mrs. Curran died, her daughter, Mary, and her daughter’s husband, Walt, who also lived in the home, moved to a new housing development in North Braddock’s first ward. But they fell on hard times, due to credit card debt as well as taking out a $30,000 home equity loan to help their child, according to Mr. Zockoll.
“Living in England, I wasn’t made aware of the situation,” he said. “On my yearly visits, I always left them with $1,000, $1,500 or $2,000. It was my way of giving back for her mom taking me in.
“One visit, Mary broke down as they were eight months behind on bank loans, exceeded their credit card allowance and couldn’t even pay the interest. On top of all this, the roof was leaking so badly you could see the sky,” he said.
“I paid off the bank, the credit card people and had the roof fixed. I kept the house in my name and told them they could live in the house free the rest of their lives.”
Mr. Zockoll put the house in his name in 2007. Mary died a few years later. Her husband decided to live with their daughter. Mr. Zockoll offered the house to their son. But he preferred to stay in his own home and didn’t want the liability of owning the North Braddock property.
In 2012, Mr. Zockoll contacted his classmate Bill Priatko to see if he could identify any of their North Braddock classmates — or their heirs — who could benefit from owning the house.
A former linebacker for the Steelers who played on the 1957 roster, Mr. Priatko has been friends with Mr. Zockoll since the days they were too poor to own a football and sometimes had to create one by rolling up magazines and newspapers held together with tape, rubber bands and string.
Mr. Priatko, now 89, thought of their classmate Frank Yezovich, a grave digger. He was deceased, but he had a son who could use a hand. His son was living with a wife and seven children in a tiny two-bedroom basement apartment in North Braddock.
Mr. Zockoll got his big break in business in 1962 with a combination of luck and some North Braddock grit.
When he left the Air Force, he worked as a flight engineer for Pan American World Airways based in New York. He flew to London three times a month and stayed at the same hotel.
While talking to the night manager, Mr. Zockoll found out that a main drain blockage was going to prevent the hotel from hosting the annual Christmas parties, and that part of the hotel would be shut down for a month to excavate the drain at a cost of $90,000.
“I convinced the management to let me have a go, and if I didn’t clear the blockage, I wouldn’t charge them anything.” he said. “If I did clear it, it would cost $10,000.
“I returned to London two days later with a drain machine, and I did the job in less than an hour,” he said. “I was a king at that hotel from then on. They couldn’t believe it.
“That was 1962. As a flight engineer, I was only being paid $5,200 a year. I packed my bags, wife and kids and moved to London.”
He quickly realized there was no drain-cleaning machine like his in the United Kingdom. There was no franchising. No Yellow Pages.
His first company was Dyno-Rod, which became the U.K.’s leader in drain cleaning services, but he expanded the Dyno brand to include electric service, roofing and many other services. He set up a national chain of muffler and brake auto repair shops, U-Haul trailers and auto painting shops under the Pit Stop brand across in the U.K. and Germany. He even built a chain of ice cream parlors, all while he kept flying for the airline.
“There was nothing in Europe like we had in the U.S.,” he said. “We set up one business after another and kept going and going.”
Mr. Zockoll said he netted $2 million selling 52 muffler and automobile service shops to the U.S. conglomerate Tenneco in 1975. Then he made more than $140 million in 2004 on the sale of the Dyno chain of companies.
In both sales, he said he shared the wealth with former Pan Am employees who had invested in his ventures.
Rich Yezovich, 60, has worked as a grave digger at Braddock Catholic Cemetery in Braddock Hills for 43 years. His brother works alongside him. Their father had worked there his whole life, too.
“I took them to the house and told them they could have it for free,” Mr. Priatko said. “They couldn’t believe it. Jim paid the closing costs and everything. They were so grateful. It was so heartwarming to be a part of that experience. They moved in that same week.”
Rich and Lisa Yezovich were celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary when they moved into the house on Parklane Drive, leaving the two-bedroom basement apartment in Braddock Heights where they had lived with their seven children.
“We were crowded. I will say that. But the kids were happy. We were happy. And it was OK,” Lisa Yezovich said. “We had lots of family around. That’s where Rich was born.
“We probably still would be living in the Heights if it wasn’t for Mr. and Mrs. Zockoll giving us this house,” she said.
Mr. Zockroll and his wife, Ann, visit. “When he comes for the reunions, they always find the time to stop by, if only for an hour,” said Ms. Yezovich.
Retired psychologist Hildegarde Aspden, 88, remembers Jim as a kind, respectful young man in high school. She has gotten to know him mostly through the annual class reunions.
“It’s wonderful we can come together as old folks after so many years and sing the high school alma mater,” she said.
Growing up in a steel mill town where everyone depended on each other and helped each other overcome the challenge of daily survival is an experience that bonds them like none other.
“We call ourselves the 49ers, being that we are the class of 1949,” said Ms. Aspden, who lives in Salem, Westmoreland County.
The reunions are held each year at Grand View Golf Club in Braddock, and the bill is always on Mr. Zockoll. His wife of 60 years, Ann, has promised to continue financially supporting the reunions if she outlives Mr. Zockoll.
“Jim goes from table to table talking to everyone and finding out how everyone’s doing and how they fared in their lives,” Ms. Aspden said. “The good fortune he’s had couldn’t have happened to a nicer kid.
“For me, what’s so memorable about him is he never forgot the people who helped him in his darkest hour. He remembered all who gave him a hand.”