November 1948 – March 2010
Gene Zimbrich, a sheet-metal fabricator and mechanical contractor with businesses in Haines and Skagway, died early Monday, March 22, 2010 at his home near 2 Mile Haines Highway. He was 61.
Wife Emily Zimbrich said the cause of her husband’s death was undetermined, but that he had suffered from heart problems and sleep apnea. “He went to bed and didn’t wake up. He just stopped breathing.”
Born in Madison, Wis. on Nov. 18, 1948, Eugene Thaddeus Zimbrich was the third of five children born to Bernard Franklin Zimbrich, a farmer and foundry worker, and wife Helen Marie Klubertanz.
Gene grew up doing chores on the family farm in nearby Sun Prairie, attended Catholic grade school and graduated from Sun Prairie High School in 1966. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17 and spent most of his service at Subic Bay, Philippines, learning to work aircraft sheet metal and fixing U.S. bombers flying sorties over Vietnam.
Completing military duty, he returned to Wisconsin in 1969 and lived in Green Bay before coming to Alaska in the early 1970s to join his brother, a lineman for the Alaska Railroad then living in Wasilla.
“He was tired of bartending and he couldn’t get into the union down there,” Emily said. She met him through a friend in January 1974, at an airline party in Big Lake when she was working for Western Airlines.
“He told me he was a plumber who had two snowmachines and houses in Wasilla and Anchorage. Well, the snowmachines belonged to his brother, and so did the house in Wasilla. He was a sheet metal apprentice making $9 an hour, living in an apartment in Anchorage,” she said.
They married in April. “I told him I wouldn’t marry him if he wasn’t a Christian. He said, ‘What do I do?’ He gave his heart to the Lord and didn’t look back.”
As a journeyman sheetmetal worker, Zimbrich fabricated and installed ductwork in Anchorage buildings including University Center mall, Sheraton Hotel and the Alaska Native Medical Center. He eventually secured state licenses as a mechanical administrator and contractor.
In 1980, the couple moved to Haines, next door to Emily’s mother, Hazel Englund. “We wanted our kids to know one set of grandparents and have a small school to go to.”
Zimbrich worked jobs in Haines and around the state before taking over the Skagway Inn in 1989. He and Emily restored the place and sold it two years later. “By then, people in Skagway were in love with Gene and his work. Ninety percent of his work started being in Skagway.”
Besides construction and furnace work, Zimbrich kept busy winterizing commercial and residential buildings there each fall and opening them back up in the spring. “Gene was never going to retire. He may have changed what he was doing, but he was never going to retire,” Emily said.
Zimbrich’s hobbies were hunting, fishing, camping and riding four-wheelers. “He loved hunting. That’s what he planned for all year. He was so excited when he turned 60 and got his free hunting and fishing licences,” Emily said.
Roy Lawrence, a career ironworker, was a good friend and fishing buddy of Zimbrich’s. He said said Zimbrich came to his aid when he was broke, after his first wife died of cancer, by getting him work at journeyman union wages. “He helped me in so many ways, it was unimaginable. If you want a friend, that’s the kind to have.”
Electrician Sonny Myers worked with Zimbrich on various jobs and described him as a quiet tradesman who came through for others. “He was one of a kind. For 30 years he kept all the burners going around here. It’ll take a while, but he’ll be missed.”
When Myers’ family had to rush out of town on medical emergency, Emily and Gene came over and took care of his house, including butchering the chickens and shampooing the carpet. “He was a super guy. I was glad to be one of his friends.”
Zimbrich is survived by his wife Emily, daughters Valerie of Haines/Skagway and Cari (and Kolin) O’Daniel of Fairbanks; brother Tim Zimbrich of Wasilla, sisters Peggy (and Jerry) Kirby of Brookfield, Wis., Geralyn (and Dave) Marcum of McFarland, Wis. and Eileen (and Mike) Schey of Rio, Wis.; and by grandchildren Kyrstin and Connor O’Daniel of Fairbanks, and nieces and nephews.
Zimbrich was preceded in death by parents Bernard and Helen Zimbrich, father-in-law Niles Englund and two sisters who died as infants.
A funeral service was held at 2 p.m. March 25 at the Haines Presbyterian Church, with a reception that followed at the American Legion Hall. Burial was at Jones Point Cemetery.
A Skagway service was held on Monday, March 29 at 2 p.m. at the Skagway Traditional Council community hall. – Chilkat Valley News