2016 Weld County Fair dedicated to Dorothy Zabka
July 25, 2016
Dorothy Zabka collected things.a She had more than 40,000 pens and pencils, some with bright feathers extending from the end, and some with names of businesses and places she'd been etched into the sides. Many of these pieces of her lifelong collection still line the walls of her now-lonely office at Martin Produce.
When Zabka saw people she cared for in the newspaper, she clipped out the story and kept it — even if it was tragic, like a car accident. If a person she knew died, she cut out their obituary and saved it. She kept knick-knacks and notes, photos and awards, all of which now decorate the office. She did it because the stories and the people in the letters and pictures mattered to her.
Now, these old memories sit untouched, like a museum without glass or velvet ropes.
Her nephew, Chuck Bird, co-owns and operates Martin Produce with Zabka's husband of 57 years, Dewey Zabka. The two held the helm of the produce company since Alzheimer's disease began stealing her mind.
“All her 4-H kids were her kids.”
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At it's peak, it was a brilliant mind, leading Zabka to be the first — and only — female mayor of Greeley, an integral part of the Weld County Fair and the leader of the family business. Because of her contributions, the Weld County Fair board is dedicating the 2016 fair to Zabka.
When she died last October, Bird and Dewey couldn't bring themselves to box up the memories she left behind. It's a shrine now, purple fair ribbons and green 4-H clovers dotting wooden walls.
Bird, who was more of a son than a nephew to Zabka, said his aunt dedicated her life to helping kids however she could, though she had none of her own. She was the leader of a 4-H club for more than 50 years and served on the fair board and royalty committees. Zabka and Dewey started the catch-it-calf contest and the car show at the fair, as well.
"She loved kids and loved helping kids," Bird said, adding with a laugh, "She was very busy for a couple weeks in August."
This year's Friend of the Fair Clair Orr's kids, Tonya, Kaycee and Katie, were all in Zabka's 4-H program. Deb Orr said Zabka was a fantastic role model for the girls and for any kid that came under her wing.
"All her 4-H kids were her kids," she said.
Orr said Zabka was also a revolutionary for young girls, like her daughters, to look up to. She was a strong woman in what was traditionally a man's world, and had been since she took over Martin Produce for her father in 1947.
She'd always been involved in agriculture, whether it was riding her horse to school east of Greeley, helping her nephew with his bucket calf, which he raised in a pen outside of Martin Produce, or serving with Dewey as Grand Marshal of the Greeley Stampede.
Not only was Zabka a pioneer for women in ag, but she paved the way for women in Greeley's politics. She served two terms as the first female mayor of Greeley, and was also the first female city council member.
Her full personality was as colorful as her vacant office, Bird said. Her hair was always done up in a beehive, long after the style went out of fashion. She wore horn-rimmed glasses, complete with rhinestones in the corners. Zabka was somebody people remembered, long after she couldn't remember them.
"She was a hell of a woman," Bird said. ❖