Ryan area native Steven Zumbach had planned to take Latin when he began high school at West Delaware in 1964. But his future high school vocational agriculture instructor, Garland Ashbacher, had other ideas for him.
Zumbach, who retired in December from the Belin McCormick Law firm in Des Moines, has left his mark on Des Moines and Central Iowa. Looking back, his career may have gotten an early boost from Ashbacher.
“I had met Garland as a 4-H boy in 1960,” Zumbach said. “In 1964 he called my parents and said he had met me in 1960. He came to our farm that night to talk about why I should take vocational agriculture. He came very well prepared.”
Zumbach admits to having several aspirations at that time. They ranged from taking over the family dairy operation and purchasing the dairy where his parents sold their milk to being governor of Iowa, secretary of agriculture or going into law.
“I was somewhat arrogant and told Mr. Ashbacher that I had been farming with my father for 14 years and knew all there is to know about farming. I told him I might want to be a lawyer and that my school counselors that I should take Latin. At that time, if you were interested in law, it was suggested you take it.”
Ashbacher told Zumbach being a great lawyer was about a lot of things, including leadership and public speaking and that Zumbach could develop those skills in his classes. “He told me West Delaware hadn’t has a state officer in Future Farmers of America in many years. He told me he thought I could be a state officer and also possibly a national officer. He also told me there were speaking contests he could help me with.”
He also told Zumbach if he enrolled in his courses, he would help him study papers written by Dr. Neil Harl, the premier agriculture lawyer in the United States who taught at Iowa State University.
“He told me he’d introduce me to Dr. Harl when I was ready to graduate,” Zumbach explained.
Ashbacher was right about his student. Four years later Zumbach was state president for the Iowa FFA and had three gold medals in state speaking contests. “After that, he introduced me to Dr. Harl,” Zumbach said.
He met Harl the summer before he began at Iowa State University. He said Harl asked him to come for an interview. “That wasn’t the type of thing you did back then,” Zumbach explained. “If you had graduated at a certain level of your class, you were automatically admitted to college.”
When Harl met him, he asked Zumbach what he wanted to do with his life. Zumbach gave Harl a similar answer he had given his vocational agriculture teacher four years earlier that night on his farm. “Dr. Harl told me I wasn’t thinking big enough,” Zumbach recalled.
What came out of that conversation was an impressive ten-year stretch that saw Zumbach earn is B.A. from Iowa State in 1973, his law degree from the University of Iowa in 1975 and his doctorate in economics from Iowa State in 1980.
During that time, he took one year away from school when he served as national FFA vice president.
Zumbach’s decades in Des Moines has seen him leave his mark in the community since beginning at Belin McCormick in 1977. His involvement in the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a regional economic development organization, eventually led to the development of Bravo Greater Des Moines, which used a portion of the motel/hotel tax from communities and counties in Central Iowa to fund the arts in Des Moines.
“In a technologically based world, companies can locate anywhere. The disadvantage Des Moines had is we didn’t have oceans or mountains, recreational amenities that people want to enjoy. But what we could do was fully develop our arts and culture programs. We did it with the funding from the hotel/motel tax, but that took a huge amount of work because that was taking money from one local government and giving to another because most of those cultural events were in downtown Des Moines.”
As a result of the success of Bravo Greater Des Moines, Zumbach said recruiting companies or workers to Des Moines has changed. “We can recruit better because we have good cultural offerings like the civic center, the arts center, the opera. We have all of those in a mid-sized town and not many towns the size of Des Moines has those offerings.”
Zumbach said Manchester has done what Des Moines has done, citing the Whitewater Park and the renovation of the Castle Theatre as examples. “There are elements of what we have done in Des Moines that you were more advanced than we were. I’m hopeful that however you got those things done that local citizens can see the wisdom long term, not short term and pay the property taxes, a portion of sales tax, whatever sources of taxes you have, that you pay those.”
Zumbach said the private sector is also important in development. “You need those private citizens to donate money from their own personal funds to make it happen, so it’s a partnership. What happens then is some wins, which you already have in Manchester, and that creates momentum to do another project. I know in hard economic times, particularly in the rural economy, it can be difficult, but farmers have to see the value of having a community like Manchester with the amenities that they and their families can enjoy.”
He spoke of the history of strong K-12 education, as well as strong state universities in the state. “Who paid for public education for K-12 and state universities? It came from property taxes and you know who pays the majority of those property taxes in Delaware County. I assume it’s still farmers.”
He continued, “When I was growing up, before and after I left, West Delaware built a new grade school, a new high school and a new junior high. Every bond issue passed. There was never a bond issue that didn’t pass while I was there. I had a grandfather who had a sixth-grade education, but he believed in the importance of a good education. That was a different sentiment than we have today in the mantra of no new taxes.”
Zumbach also had praise for Iowa’s system of community colleges, saying it helps support vocational programs. “A high number of jobs in this country don’t require a college education, but other skills. I don’t think we give the respect and appreciation we should for what the community colleges do in the area for vocational training and the importance of that for a significant life than can be quite satisfying.”
He noted the welding program at West Delaware High School that allows students to earn community college credit and a national certificate. “That’s a great success story. It’s rooted in the history of Delaware County understanding the need to provide for a full range of educational programs, so I’m very proud of the fact that a program like that was able to be put into place for people to develop that skill.”
Zumbach feels strongly about giving back and helping others.
“What many of us do is confuse luck with skill. My life could have taken many different pathways. Yes, I worked very hard. But there are many pathways it could have taken that wouldn’t have been good. And when I had been fortunate enough when luck was on my side and I got a win when it could have been a loss, I had a responsibility to give back to others.”
He said it’s important for people to have second chances. “If you take care of people who have had back luck, with the emphasis on bad luck, I’m not talking about people who don’t take initiative on their own, but a system based on a desire to succeed and perform if given a second chance, we are all going to be better off if we can develop the full potential of all or our citizens and help them maintain that through a lifetime. That’s something our country has lost track of.”
“My parents had high school degrees. Mine was the first generation to go to college. And because of them and what they did, I had the opportunity to develop my potential to their absolute fullest. If I had that benefit and good luck and am able to give back in both time and money, I have a responsibility to do that. And we are all going to be better off because I am building a better world for my children and grandchildren.”
And after a career well spent, Zumbach still recalls meeting his first meeting with his high school vocational agriculture instructor. “A 10-year-old boy meeting an advisor and counselor at a county fair. He took an interest in me and four years later inspired me to look at my world in a little bit different way.”