James Zimmerman’s adult life could easily have been defined by tragedy. When he was 36, a freight train killed his wife and their six children as she drove them to school in Waseca, Minn.
The tragedy became a national story. The monsignor remarked at the funeral: “The cry of lamentation went out to the entire nation and the world,” according to a story in the Waseca Journal on Sept. 16, 1959.
Zimmerman later remarried and rarely spoke of the incident, but he testified in 1961 to help pass a Minnesota law that required school buses to transport nonpublic school students. Before the accident, parochial school students had not been able to ride the bus with children in public schools.
“The accident defined his survival, not his life,” said his daughter, Mariia Zimmerman of Arlington, Va. “He was a firm believer about not living in the past but rather finding out what you need to do in life.”
He died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on Jan. 25 at the age of 91.
After the train accident, Mr. Zimmerman received thousands of letters of condolence, many from women around the country offering to be there for him. He threw all the invitations away, except one, from a woman whose niece also lived in southern Minnesota.
After several false starts and meeting separately with the same priest for advice, Zimmerman married Vivian Hoffman Kraus in 1962. Kraus was a widow with six children after her husband died of cancer. She and Zimmerman then had three children of their own.
“I am named after the priest who advised them on separate occasions and gave them his blessing to marry again,” said son Peter Zimmerman, 51, of Waseca.
Peter and brother Paul are now the fifth generation to farm the land beloved by his father and his ancestors.
“He fought hard to keep land around the farm from being zoned for development,” Peter said. “He saw the need to keep the area natural, so he bought the lots and turned a large portion of it to native plants.”
Zimmerman also helped to establish the man-made Moonan Marsh, 900 acres of public hunting land in Waseca County adjacent to the farm.
“Up until that time in southern Minnesota, it was drain, drain, drain the land and the wildlife habitat was lost,” said friend and former Waseca County Extension agent Jurgen Peters. “Jim was instrumental in changing that.”
When Zimmerman was named the state champion farmer-sportsman in 1971, he told the Star Tribune, “I’ve got a 20-acre woods out there that could be grubbed out and planted. But on a rainy day I can go out there in the woods and think. You can’t do that in a cornfield.”
Son Paul said his father was a man who knew that even on a busy farm, kids needed to be kids. He made a softball field and a basketball court on their land. Season openers for duck and pheasant hunting were almost a religious event.
“Farming didn’t matter on those days. We shut down,” said Peter.
Zimmerman turned hunting into stories to delight his kids. “A lot of his stories seemed like tall tales, like the time he and George Herter of Herter’s Outdoor Stores covered a boat in mirrors so the ducks wouldn’t see them. The boat sank because of the weight of the mirrors,” Mariia Zimmerman said, laughing.
Zimmerman lived only slightly longer than a week in an assisted-living facility after he left the farm where he was born. “He always said that Zimmerman men don’t live very long off the farm,” said Peter.
Zimmerman is survived by his three children, six stepchildren, 27 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.