MOCANAQUA — It’s been 19 years since Seth Zimolzak died, yet he still lives in the hearts and minds of many.
I met Seth when I was volunteering with the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Northeast Pennsylvania. Seth was one of my first “Wish Kids.”
Seth was 18 at the time and in the last year of his life. He had been diagnosed some five years earlier with cancer and he battled the terrible disease before finally succumbing to it on Sept. 6, 1999. That was the year Seth graduated from high school in those infamous orange suede shoes that I have written about many times.
I still have those fancy shoes and on very special occasions, I wear them, despite them being at least two sizes too small.
Seth’s parents, my dear friends Lon and Susan Zimolzak, gave me Seth’s orange suede shoes on the day of his funeral. His dad told me to wear the shoes whenever there was a Make-A-Wish fundraising event so Seth could be part of it.
And I did wear them often and those shoes helped raise a lot of money for the foundation.
I would wear the shoes to our annual Make-A-Wish Ball — a black tie event, mind you. When people would see me in a tuxedo and look down to see the orange suede shoes, they would laugh and say, “Nice shoes.”
It was at those moments that I would relate the story of Seth and the orange suede shoes and when I was done, with those listening crying their eyes out (me too), they would make a sizable donation to the foundation.
Those orange shoes worked every time. And Seth, I am certain, would be smiling from above every time.
On the recent 19th anniversary of his death (Sept. 6), I feel compelled to tell the story of the orange suede shoes again. It was sometime in 1999 when Seth and his parents were in New York City where Seth was receiving treatment for that nasty disease. Seth and his mom were walking by a store when Seth spied the shoes in the store window. He told his mom he would love to wear the orange shoes to his high school graduation, which was coming up.
Susan never hesitated — she bought the shoes. Seth was thrilled.
Then the Northwest Area School District issued an edict — only black or brown shoes could be worn to graduation. Seth was disappointed, but he complied with the rule. His friends had other plans.
As the graduates were entering the football stadium on June 6, 1999, Seth was last in line — Zimolzak came far after all other surnames that year. As Seth entered the stadium, a group of his friends stopped him and out of a large trash barrel came a box containing the orange suede shoes. They convinced Seth to remove his policy-adhering black shoes and he slipped into those glorious orange suede shoes he so coveted.
When his name was called to come to center stage for his diploma, Seth proudly walked up wearing his orange suede shoes. And the crowd cheered wildly. It was a very special moment.
Seth and I were close. We would go golfing and I took him to every event I was involved with back then, even the Miss UNICO contest. While the judges were interviewing contestants, Seth waited with the contenders in another room. When it was over, he told me he got six phone numbers. I asked him, “Is that all?” His response was, “That’s all I wanted.”
Seth wore a suit that night and topped it off with a derby. This kid had it all and I wonder still what he would be doing today at age 37.
When Seth was failing and near the end of his life, he appeared at our Make-A-Wish telethon. He was frail-looking, but he was determined to come to help out and he wore a tuxedo. He was seated on a couch waiting to be interviewed by a WBRE staffer when he stopped me. He reached into his pocket and handed me an envelope.
Inside the envelope was a lot of money — $1,647. I asked him what he wanted me to do with it.
“Give it to the kids,” Seth said. “I won’t need it where I’m going.”
I stood there staring — first at the money, then at Seth, and back again. I also cried, not just because of this magnanimous gesture, but because of the realization that Seth knew he was dying. That was Aug. 6, 1999. Seth died a month later to the day.
Seth’s death hit everybody hard, especially his mom, dad and sister, Erica. Seth’s memory will never fade. He left an indelible mark on the hearts of all who knew him.
In January 1999, Seth was the featured speaker at the Make-A-Wish Ball. He talked about valuing time. He asked all in attendance to cherish every second they have because life is short at its longest. Nobody knew that more than Seth.
It was an unforgettable night, thanks to a remarkable, brave young man.
That’s why I remember him today — and every day.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle, or email at [email protected]