Editor’s note: This is the third of a “Where Are They Now?” series that will run on the third Tuesday of each month during the Kenosha News’ 125th anniversary year. The series focuses on former Kenosha County standout athletes and their lives after sports.
John Zeihen figured he wouldn’t be elected to this year’s Central Athletic Hall of Fame, the program’s second class.
His older brother Ben, a 1956 Central graduate, was inducted into last year’s inaugural class, so John — a three-sport varsity athlete who graduated in 1962 and was most notable for his basketball exploits — thought two Zeihens in two years was, well, just too many Zeihens.
“’They did a Zeihen the first time,’” John Zeihen recalls longtime friend and Central boys golf coach Mark Olsen telling him in an interview with the News last week. “’They’re not really sure they want to do another Zeihen right away.’
“And that’s the last I heard. He said, ‘You know, maybe later on, or whatever.’ So all of a sudden one day in the mail I get a letter, and I open it up, and here it’s for me: ‘Hey, welcome, you’ve been selected to go into the Hall of Fame.’
“I went back and made sure the address on the envelope … I thought maybe my address got on somebody else’s letter. That was totally a shock. Quite an honor.”
Well, as Central keeps inducting new classes to its Hall of Fame each year, members of the Zeihen family will likely keep populating it.
The 74-year-old John Zeihen, who moved back to the area following four years in the Navy after graduating from St. Norbert College in De Pere and now resides in Brighton, speaks in a straightforward manner and cuts an unassuming, friendly presence.
When he lists the athletic accomplishments of himself and his family, it doesn’t remotely come off as bragging. In fact, he seems so modest about it that you almost have to ask twice to make sure you heard him correctly.
First, of course, are the brothers, Ben — who spent three years in pro baseball with the Milwaukee Braves organization — and John.
Then there are Ben’s two sons, Ron and Bob, who played multiple sports at Central in the 1980s. Bob Zeihen, in fact, was a standout baseball player who attended Indiana State and was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 23rd round in 1988.
Bob made it as high as Triple-A, but there was another player blocking his path.
“It came down to Bob and Bernie Williams in center field,” John Zeihen said with a laugh. “You know who won that one.”
John didn’t have any sons to carry on the Central athletic legacy, but his three daughters — Kathy, Renee and Stefanie — sure did.
His daughters all went to state in volleyball, and Renee was a member of the Falcons’ first state volleyball title team in 1989. She went on to compete in gymnastics at UW-La Crosse.
Quite an athletic family tree.
John Zeihen, obviously, left his own mark on Central sports, which is why he was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.
He played two years of football, lettered three times in baseball — he recalled many battles against former Bradford star pitcher Dick Bosman, who played 11 years in the majors before a long coaching career — and picked up two letters in basketball.
It was on the hardwood that Zeihen’s talents were greatest.
Zeihen played under Dorm Grams, another Central Hall of Famer who coached football, basketball and boys golf and was the school’s athletic director from 1957-86.
Playing in the Southeast Conference, Zeihen was a member of Central teams that won a co-conference title in 1961 and the outright conference title in 1962, Zeihen’s senior year.
That 1962 team is regarded as one of the best in program history, and until the program’s current renaissance — which has included three consecutive trips to sectionals and the school’s first-ever trip to the state tournament last season — was indisputably the best.
The 1962 Falcons went 20-1, their only defeat coming to Beloit Memorial in the WIAA Tournament regional finals when the postseason was a one-division format. Until 2017, no Central squad since ‘62 won 20 or more games, and the ‘62 team’s 20-game winning streak still remains the longest in program history.
A guard, Zeihen averaged more than 17 points per game and was named unanimous All-Southeast Conference and All-Area by the Burlington Standard Press.
Ironically, the recent success of the program has only seemed to revive interest in how good that ‘62 team was.
“You see it in the paper once in a while, but you wonder how many people are still around from the ‘62 team,” Zeihen said.
Zeihen’s high school career earned him a look from legendary DePaul basketball coach Ray Meyer.
“I thought I had a shot at DePaul,” Zeihen said. “Even went down there for a tryout, which I don’t know was legal back then. Three of our players went down there, and we got to do a scrimmage with Ray Meyer.
“… Ray Meyer asked you what you were interested in, in a subject or studying, and I told him, ‘Business.’ And he said, ‘Hmm. You know, those business classes are all downtown (in Chicago).’ You’ve got to take the ‘L’ (train) downtown to The Loop, and (DePaul is) really on the northwest side, the campus is.
“So I don’t know if that had a bearing on it, and then he wanted to know if I had interest in any other schools, and I said, ‘St. Norbert’s,’ and he wrote a letter of recommendation to the coach (Romie Kosnar), because the coach at St. Norbert never saw me play or anything.”
Since St. Norbert was then an NAIA program, Zeihen was able to get an athletic scholarship, and he graduated with an accounting degree after four years in 1966.
In the meantime, he earned three letters in basketball and was named team captain for his senior year. During Zeihen’s junior year, in 1965, St. Norbert won the NAIA district tournament to advance to the 32-team national tournament in Kansas City, Mo.
St. Norbert lost in the first round, 87-69, to Winston-Salem, which featured an underclassman guard named Earl Monroe.
“I didn’t know how good he was going to be,” Zeihen said of facing Monroe. “I remember our coach said, ‘They’ve got a very good guard,’ and that was it.
“It turned out to be Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe. … I didn’t realize how good he was going to be.”
As Zeihen approached graduating from St. Norbert, the Vietnam War was in full swing. On college deferment, Zeihen figured there was a good chance he’d receive his draft notice shortly after graduation, so he took proactive steps to enter the military in a capacity he preferred.
He entered the Navy in January 1967 and completed Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., with the rank of ensign. With his accounting degree an asset, Zeihen served in the supply corps, taking trips from Norfolk, Va., to the Mediterranean Sea with supplies.
In November 1970, Zeihen completed his four-year commitment and was honorably discharged from the Navy with the rank of lieutenant.
At that point, he considered enlisting in the Navy for 20 years and said he had even written his letter to augment into the regular Navy from the reserves.
Instead, he received a job offer in accounting from Racine Hydraulics, and it was back into civilian life for good.
Zeihen has enjoyed a long career in his field, working the final 16 years for Stainless Products in Somers until retirement in September 2014. He still helps out there in a semi-retirement capacity.
Now, he spends time with his wife, Sue. They’ll be married 50 years in June and have three granddaughters and a grandson.
Zeihen, who attended Paris Grade School, has spent the majority of his life in the area, aside from his time at St. Norbert and his time in the Navy.
When asked why he’s chosen to remain in Kenosha County, he shrugged and gave a simple answer that wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s spoken to Zeihen for even a few minutes.
“My brother lived around here, too, and my parents lived around here, too,” he said.
“So I guess family was a big part of it.”
An athletic family, at that.