The first time I met Don Zelle he struck me as a hybrid between Socrates and Doc Brown, the mad scientist from the Back to the Future movies. That was about five years ago, and since then he’s proven to be one of the most pleasant and peculiar people I know. Don’s a retired English teacher who now serves as cantor and reader at several Orthodox Churches in the St. Louis area, commuting by way of his yellow Ford Model A replica (originally manufactured in 1929), and constantly criticizing people who enjoy music that was recorded after the 1940’s.
Don’s great-great grandfather immigrated to the States from Germany in 1851, and made his home in Mount Pulaski, Illinois, not far from Springfield where Don grew up. After graduating from Lanphier High School in 1956, Don attended Knox College and earned his undergraduate degree in Art. He moved to New York after college and met his wife Evthokia whom he married in 1963. “She was Greek,” he told me. “Still is.” He also informed me that Saint Evthokia, for whom she was named, is an empress who helped preserve the tradition of venerating the holy icons of Jesus, Mary, and the Saints in the Orthodox Church.
Don taught English in the town of Lincoln, Illinois, then moved to Long Island for a time before heading west to San Francisco State University where he continued his studies and acted in close to thirty plays. He and Eve eventually made their home in Affton, Missouri, and both worked as teachers at Affton High School.
For the majority of Don’s career he taught speech, drama, and freshman English at Kirkwood High School in St. Louis County. He claims to have been a strict and serious teacher which I believe given his frequent rants concerning pop music and culture. I asked him what qualities make for a good educator. He replied that too much emphasis is placed on style nowadays. “Teachers should have knowledge on the subject,” he said.
One of Don’s favorite poems is “Sailing to Byzantium,” by William Butler Yeats, one of his favorite plays is The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde, and he greatly appreciates Jane Austen’s work. His favorite musicians include Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, Scott Joplin, and Johann Sebastian Bach. Don loves old movies, the silent comedies starring Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. He also named John Gielgud, Deborah Kerr, Alec Guinness, and Robert Duvall among his favorite actors.
Don’s first marriage ended with a divorce, sadly, in 1978. After some time had passed, one of his students suggested he go out with Barbara, a coworker at Kirkwood High School, so Don asked her out on a date. Six months later she agreed, and in 1980 they got married. “I can’t praise her enough,” he says of Barbara. “Except that she married me—I can’t respect someone like that.” Don and Barbara were happily married for thirty-one years. Three years ago, Barbara fell asleep in the Lord. Don’s two daughters, Nikki and Teddi, live in New York now with their mother Evthokia.
On most weekday mornings Don can be found chanting and offering praise to the Trinity at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church. On Sundays he celebrates the Divine Liturgy at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in South St. Louis. One of the holy icons Don painted portrays the Apostle Thomas and is currently on display at the Assumption. He has also painted icons of Saint Barbara and of the Holy Prophet Samuel.
Regarding life in St. Louis, Don said, “I love this city. I’ve had a love affair with this city for half a century, and my love has not diminished.”