A life remembered: Joe ZasteraA blessing for Two Harbors started with a World War II soldier’s bout with malaria. Harold Koop was told he would need to find a cooler climate than the one in his home state of Nebraska. A relative visiting from the North Shore heard Koop tell his mother this and suggested Two Harbors. And that’s how Joe Zastera ended up here, leaving a personal and civic legacy many fondly recalled last week with the news he had passed away Thursday at age 83.
A blessing for Two Harbors started with a World War II soldier’s bout with malaria.
Harold Koop was told he would need to find a cooler climate than the one in his home state of Nebraska. A relative visiting from the North Shore heard Koop tell his mother this and suggested Two Harbors.
And that’s how Joe Zastera ended up here, leaving a personal and civic legacy many fondly recalled last week with the news he had passed away Thursday at age 83.
Zastera’s sister, Audrey Koop, on Friday told the entwined stories of her late husband and the eventual arrival of her brother from Nebraska.
They were short-staffed at James Drug in 1949 and needed a pharmacist. “The druggist wanted new blood,” Audrey said. “Harold said his brother-in-law just graduated from pharmacy school.”
So Zastera hopped on a bus for Two Harbors to interview. The World War II veteran and witness to the Nuremburg trials was there for a year before being called back to war service, this time in Korea.
“He was called up the day after Christmas in 1950,” his wife, Ann said. He had to report immediately but willingly, she said. “He loved his time in the Army.”
Daughter Jody said he was a “very proud American.”
After Korea, Zastera went to work in the family pharmacy in his hometown of Louisville, Neb.
“He wanted to own his own drug store,” Ann said. His chance would come in 1956.
Zastera made an impression in his first short stint on the North Shore.
The James Drug competitor across the street, Falk Drug, needed new owners since longtime businessman Charles Falk was retiring. He offered the business to Zastera and employee Ted Norlen.
“He jumped at the chance,” Ann said. The move to Two Harbors was permanent.
For years, Ray Widen had a shoe store across from the pharmacy. He and Zastera became close friends. “He ran a good shop,” Widen said.
The drug store became a favorite for its soda fountain and ice cream, along with meticulous service. “That was some wonderful ice cream,” Audrey said.
Ann said Joe made an impression as a “bubbly, bouncy person” who was a “real go-getter.” The couple never regretted the move to Two Harbors, she said.
Joe made a name for himself in the pharmacy world beyond the North Shore. He was on the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy for 12 years and state president twice. He served on the national pharmacy board for 10 years and was honored with a “Distinguished Service Award” in 1994.
When he was named state president, he said it was “for his dad,” Jody said. Joe Sr. ran the store in Louisville and became a civic model his son would aspire to.
When he retired in 1986, Zastera continued to look after the town he had grown to love.
He made a huge impression as a member of the Two Harbors Area Community Fund begun 12 years ago to offer money to groups looking to improve the experience of living in the Two Harbors area.
“He was a constant, steady, strong partner,” said Becky Byers-Strand from the parent fund in Duluth. His expertise and in the grant writing process became the “gold standard” for the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation. He was the “go-to guy” for anyone who wanted to know how the process worked, she said.
His “diligence” was uncommon, former Two Harbors educator and mayor Lyle Northey said. He worked with Zastera on the fund. “Not all of us put the energy into it that Joe did,” he said. And he was always sure to find a way to make the fund have the “most impact” on the area.
“He got on things,” fellow area fund board member Russ Conrow said. The Lake County Attorney said Zastera became a friend soon after he came to the area, first as two military veterans swapping stories and then as community boosters. “He was always there,” Conrow said. “He was very diligent.”
Conrow’s first law office was in the Two Harbors Depot, a place dear to Joe and Ann as they volunteered with the Lake County Historical Society. Joe was instrumental in getting the light burning again at the light station on Agate Bay. Ann remains president of the board.
Two Harbors Area Chamber of Commerce President Gordy Anderson first worked with Zastera on the Lake View Memorial Hospital Foundation. It was shortly after Anderson returned to his hometown after 20 years away.
“I can remember the first meeting as Joe came over and shook my hand and welcomed me back to the community and onto the board,” Anderson said.
It was the kind of detail Anderson would appreciate over the years. As chair of the grants committee for the area fund, Zastera wouldn’t rest until he totally understood the group requesting the money, Anderson said. He recalled a group called “Kids & Horses” and “Joe went out and found the farm, visited with the group leaders, petted the horses and then reported back to the committee. Wow.”
Pete Jeronimus, president of The Lake Bank and an area fund board member, marveled at Zastera’s love of the Two Harbors area. “If anyone would say something bad (about the area) he’d square off with them,” he said.
Zastera played as hard as he fought for civic improvement. In 1967, Widen said, the pair joined with 11 others to buy hunting and recreational land near Brimson. They would call the lodge they put up the Hunter Inn. It was home base for Zastera’s love of comradery and outdoor pursuits. The members came from all walks of life and were a balanced bunch, Widen said. “In 34 years there never was an argument or fight,” he said. “It was the best 34 years of my life.”
Of the 13 original owners, only three are still alive. The dwindling numbers are why the land was sold in 1998, Widen said.
He and Zastera were trailblazers, literally and figuratively, on snowmobiles. “There were no trails back then,” Widen said. “We’d go from Langley River Road to Hugo’s,” he said. “We broke the trail” so everyone else could ride.
Zastera didn’t leave in the winter. He wanted to enjoy what are now numerous groomed trails in the area. “You’d expect someone in his age group would leave in winter,” Conrow said. “He stayed around.”
Anderson was always willing to let Zastera bend his ear. “I would come into work and there would be Joe sitting and waiting for me,” he said.
“We would talk about what was on his mind and then wander off onto the snowmobile trails, his golf game, his family, my family,” Anderson said. “’One more cup of coffee, Gord, and then I’ll let you go’ he would say.”
Northey, who came to Two Harbors in 1960, said he got to know Zastera from discussions about college football, a passion for both men. “He was a Nebraska fan, of course,” Northey said. The Cornhuskers laid some wallops on the Minnesota Gophers over the years, Northey said, “and Joe was more than willing to point that out to me.”
Anderson said members of the fund board are going to donate $100 each to the Two Harbors Heritage Days festival as a tribute to Zastera, a total of more than $1,000. “Joe was a true gentleman who cared dearly about this town,” Anderson said. “I already miss him and so will our community.”
Ann said her husband’s legacy is one of a dedicated pharmacist who was a “friend to the people.” She said he “left a footprint.”
Ann said that after he sold the store in 1986, Joe would go to the parking lot at Agate Bay with maps and knowledge of the ore boats coming and going. “He’d look for out-of-state plates and tell them about the ships and the area. He loved it.”
“My dad said he never met a stranger,” Audrey said of Joseph Sr. and his ability to make anyone feel welcome in the Louisville community. “Joe was that way too.”