Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Sara D. Zenge who died May 26, 2012, at the age of 98. Her obituary was published in the May 29 edition of The Herald-Mail.
Sara Zenge loved words. From her undergraduate degree to the doctorate in linguistics she was awarded at the age of 70, it was words and education that moved her.
“Grandma loved words. Preferably, there was a dictionary in every room,” said granddaughter Kate Grumbacher of Alexandria, Va.
When her only child, Judy Grumbacher of Alexandria, Va., was young, Judy loved having her children’s dictionary read to her over and over, to which Sara obliged.
When Judy’s only child, Sara Katherine “Kate” Grumbacher, was born, Zenge bought an even bigger children’s dictionary for her.
“I will return the favor by getting Sophie an even bigger dictionary,” said Judy, referring to the upcoming birth of Kate’s daughter, due around Labor Day.
“I was lucky. I was her only grandchild ever. I didn’t have to share her with anyone else,” Kate said.
Four days before her death, the 98-year-old Zenge was reading to kindergarten students at Salem Avenue Elementary School in Hagerstown, where she and several other Ravenwood Assisted Living residents volunteered twice a month.
Sara had volunteered for the past two school years and worked exclusively with Sara Dillow’s kindergartners on reading.
“You could tell her heart was in education. She really took to the kids. She was a real inspiration to me,” Dillow said.
Sara Dunning was born and raised in Tamms, Ill., a “dirt-poor town” in the southern tip of the state. She was one of five children, but only three lived to adulthood.
Sara was 5 when the car in which her father Henry, mother Maisie, and an infant brother were riding was hit by a streetcar while they were out Christmas shopping. Sara’s brother died in the crash, and her father died the next day.
Her mother was in a coma for several days, but recovered and relied on her training as a teacher to support her family until she remarried.
The accident affected Sara’s perspectives in many ways.
“She always told me everyone needed to be able to support themselves,” Judy Grumbacher said.
Her mother’s father, who had four daughters, was an avid reader, although he probably attended school only to the sixth-grade.
“She grew up with people who valued education. Her aunts — she just grew up around strong women, smart women,” Judy said.
“Mom was the first in her family to go to college,” she said.
Sara told her family that she had some incredible teachers during the Depression. She was taught and encouraged by educators with master’s degrees and doctorates, who were happy to get teaching jobs where they could.
After high school, Sara went to normal school for training to become a teacher. She worked in a one-room schoolhouse in Bowling Green, Mo.
Unconventional and nontraditional are two words that would describe Sara. She valued education so much that she quit a paying job during the Depression to go to college, which did not earn her overwhelming support from her family.
“It was a decision that changed her life,” Judy said.
Sara met her husband, Leighton Zenge, on a blind date while she was a student at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo. Leighton was four years older and lived in Canton.
Judy said she found a poem her mother had written, noting that “his smile drove away all reason.”
“Mom always thought he looked like Lee Marvin. He was charming and dashing,” Judy said.
They married in 1940 and had one daughter, Judy. While he served in theU.S. Army, Sara worked as a teaching principal at a school in Nebo, Ill.
After the war ended, Leighton worked in construction, and the family moved around to different construction projects. Sara’s writing skills served her well as she worked for a newspaper in Quincy, Ill.
“In many ways, I think that was the job she liked best. She had a real sense for feature stories,” Judy said.
Move to Hagerstown
The family moved to Hagerstown in 1954 to be close to Sara’s sister, Maisie Creech Badrich, and her husband, whose family was from here. Sara and Leighton divorced in the late 1960s.
Sara returned to teaching and worked at Woodland Way Junior High School, then North Hagerstown High School, before she applied for and was hired as a high school English teacher for closed-circuit instructional TV.
She retired in 1980 after also working as the English supervisor and director of Title I programs and director of curriculum for Washington County Public Schools.
After retirement, Sara returned to school to earn her doctorate. She took advantage of the University of Maryland’s Golden Identification Card Program that offered retired Maryland residents age 60 or older free tuition at the College Park campus.
Sara rented an apartment in College Park, where she lived during the week. She returned to Hagerstown on weekends to play piano and organ for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hagerstown, where she was a founding member and served several terms as a board member, including as president.
Sara’s doctoral thesis was based on a study she did following a group of Hagerstown students from kindergarten through fifth-grade, studying how they learned to read. After retiring, she wrote several articles about her research.
“I know it worried her after she got her doctorate that she should be doing more with it. Mom had this sense she was never doing enough, that she should be more productive,” Judy said.
‘A force of nature’
A wonderful knitter and seamstress, Sara made clothes for Kate and taught her to sew. She had knitted a baby blanket for Sophie.
“I never though she wouldn’t be here to see the baby,” Kate said.
Kate recalls watching the Mummer’s Parade from Sara’s South Potomac Street home along the parade route, where Sara lived for more than 40 years.
“She always had time for me. She loved me fiercely,” Kate said.
Sara loved her garden and at one point, had more than 200 varieties of flowers.
“We talked all the time and saw each other regularly. We liked to cook, talk, play and be silly,” Kate said.
Sara was a longtime member of the National Organization for Women and a lifelong Democrat, inspired by programs President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration instituted to help poor communities like the one in which she grew up.
She also devoted many years to the Alternatives to Violence program at the Maryland Correctional Institute.
Sara traveled later in life after her mother died and loved Greece and Italy, countries of great interest to her because of her love for Greek and Roman mythology.
“Kate, Sophie and I are going to take her ashes to Italy,” Judy said.
In 2000, Sara moved to Alexandria to be closer to Judy and Kate.
Sara moved back to Hagerstown in 2008 because she missed her sister and friends in Hagerstown.
After volunteering at Salem Avenue Elementary days before her death, Sara got dizzy and was sent to a hospital emergency room, where she was treated for dehydration.
She returned to Ravenwood, aspirated something into her lungs and developed pneumonia. Her kidneys started shutting down and she went septic.
“She recognized us, smiled and squeezed our hands. She died peacefully Saturday morning. We were both there,” Judy said.
“She was a force of nature,” Kate said.