When injured Milwaukee firefighter William Zokan died in 1996, after more than 13 years in a coma, his story was as much about his wife as what had happened on Labor Day 1982.
If a fallen firefighter is a hero, so, too, was the wife who insisted that his place was at home with her. Mary Zokan believed in the vows they had made on their wedding day, words about for better or for worse, in sickness or in health. Putting her Bill in a nursing home was not an option.
" ‘You have your own life,’ " Zokan said others would tell her. "What does it mean really? He is my life."
Theirs was one of the "great, quiet love stories of our city," wrote reporter Alan Borsuk of the Journal Sentinel. Later, an editorial would repeat those words.
"I’m sad for myself and happy for him," she said after his death, "because it was a pretty long time to be that way."
She would live nearly 12 more years, time for volunteer work, family and herself.
Zokan died Nov. 20 of myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disease, with family members caring for her just as she had cared for her husband. Zokan was 77. She last lived in Columbia, S.C.
The former Mary Ann Crowley was born and raised in St. Louis. She had planned to become a nun, joining a religious order after high school graduation in 1948. She left in 1949, homesick and needing time to think about her decision.
She was volunteering with a young women’s group — serving breakfast to military personnel after Sunday Mass — when she met William Zokan , then stationed with the Army in Missouri.
"I think it was love at first sight," she later wrote in a memoir for family members.
The two married in 1953. He first worked for Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. and Wisconsin Electric. She went to work for the Milwaukee Shoe Co. He joined the Milwaukee Fire Department in 1954.
With the arrival of the first of their five children, Mary Zokan became a homemaker. She found freedom in the simple things, such as learning to drive. Grocery shopping was easier, and she didn’t have to take the children on the bus when running errands.
Life was happy and sweetly normal until that day in 1982.
William Zokan was buried when a concrete loading dock he was on collapsed under the weight of tons of wet bales of paper. He had no pulse and was not breathing when he was rescued. His other injuries healed, but his brain was damaged by lack of oxygen in the minutes after the dock collapse.
He came home after nine months in the hospital and another three months in rehabilitative care. And there he stayed for the rest of his life.
"The decision she made was the right and honorable way to do it," said son Thomas Zokan .
"The house was so quiet after all the people came and went," Mary Zokan wrote in her memoir. "I had time to think about my life now that Bill was gone. I missed him but I think I felt at peace . . . he was with God, so I felt good about that."
She got to do more volunteer work, including as a Sunday school teacher at Blessed Sacrament parish and helping out at a shelter.
"Volunteering is so rewarding," she wrote. "It makes you feel more giving. It also helps you to forget yourself and think of others."
Zokan moved to Columbia, S.C., where some of her family lived, settling into life and more volunteer work there.
"When it was time for Mary to let others start taking care of her, it was hard for her to accept," said her granddaughter Nicole Cendrowski. "It was time for her to receive the love and care she had given her entire life."
In addition to her son and granddaughter, survivors include daughters Catherine DePalma and Nancy Aussprung, sons Michael and Joseph, sister Betty J. Crowley Seeney and other grandchildren.
A funeral Mass was celebrated in South Carolina. Visitation in Milwaukee will begin at 10 a.m. Friday at the Bruskiewitz Forest Lane Chapel, 5355 W. Forest Home Ave. A brief service will held at 11 a.m., followed by burial.
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