Mike Zimbicki was the middle son of ten children: Joe, Stanley, Alice, Mary, Babe, Stella, George, Zeke and Rosie. The ten children lived what Mike remembered as a bliss-filled idyll of freedom running in the woods. Children of Polish immigrants who came to the United States in 1913, his father was Peter Ziembicki, a mill worker and moonshiner and his mother Veronika Kondracka ran the still and saved the family from eviction by selling shots of whiskey to mill workers out the window of the Heidelberg home.
After his mother’s death at age 44, the oldest children dropped out of school, went to work and supported the younger children. Mike said of his eldest sister Alice, “I’d have starved as a kid. She always made me food.” He was grateful all his life to his older brothers and sisters, to the family that shared the duplex and made sure they didn’t starve, and to the neighborhood family that made sure he got at least one new piece of clothing every year for Christmas.
Mike dropped out after eighth grade, learned to weld, lied about his age and started a 50-year career in steel mills. His training made him a valuable man in the 955th Field Artillery in the US Army in Korea. As welder for his unit, he kept the big trucks and the even bigger guns in working order.
After the war, a coworker and future brother-in-law Gig introduced him to a redheaded artistic beauty who promptly broke her engagement to a minister. They married just five months later. She described him as blunt, honest and charming. In short order they moved to Rennerdale, had Amy, Mark, Michael, and everyone’s favorite kid brother Max.
People who didn’t know him well describe him as a simple guy. But that belied a rich multifaceted life described with many words.
Mike was an obsessive soccer fan willing to watch any game and any team. He played “inside right” on a number of teams starting in 1941. Those teams won the Junior US Cup, the US Amateur Cup, the Eastern League National, and many Keystone League and Western Pennsylvania championships. In 1958, he was invited to the All-Star Pan Am team, and was selected for the 1968 US Olympic team – a honor he refused because he lacked the funds to go to Mexico City. He was inducted into the inaugural class of the Heidelberg Soccer Hall of Fame.
In his later years, he became an avid horseshoe pitcher at Horseshoes of Pittsburgh Enterprises (HOPE) where he was still accurately throwing ringers until the day before his illness.
“Master gardener and cook”
Mike believed fervently you shouldn’t buy anything you can grow or make. His garden was an Eden of tomatoes, beans, parsley, garlic, rhubarb (a favorite of first granddaughter Zoey), onions, cucumbers, Brussels sprouts and more. He made sauerkraut, canned tomato juice and sauces, and put up endless pickles. In turn, that bounty became his pierogies, pigs in blankets, homemade spaghetti sauce and much more.
“Frugal (okay, cheap)”
Mike never threw anything away. After all, you might need a few hundred pounds of scrap metal, a hundred pickle jars, and all the used plastic containers ever brought into the house.
“Protective and Fast”
As little kids on a beach trip, Mark, Michael and Max built an elaborate sand castle. When two teenage rowdies stomped the castle into dust, Mike ran down the beach after them, captured them and forced them to apologize. “He was always looking out for us,” said his sons.
His frugal nature and quick thinking were in view as he later caught the cat as it dragged the Thanksgiving turkey, thump, thumping down the cellar stairs. The cat may not have apologized in the same way but the turkey was cleaned and served for supper.
Mike made friends everywhere, always. Kathleen’s art friends on two continents, Mark and Michael’s friends in Georgia and Tennessee and everyone in between responded to his kindness and hilarity. He never judged and seemed oblivious to power, income, and color. In an age of racism, Mike was proud of his friendships with neighbors, co-workers and fellow soldiers of all races and backgrounds.
On an all day unsuccessful fishing trip with son Michael, Mike’s brother-in-law Gig and nephew Matt, the hungry group wondered into a hillside rich with wild strawberries. Mike continued to point in the wrong direction to his color blind relatives, laughing and misleading them as he scarfed up the berries.
If you haven’t already heard, make sure Kathleen tells you the story of Mike’s ill-fated scaling of a sheer stone cliff in Australia seeking an opal for her. He broke his everything, splashed his blood across the rocks, but came up smiling and joking as he walked to the ambulance.
Mike never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t believe. He insisted that he had repeatedly won the lottery but had been cheated out of his millions by unscrupulous clerks, and that medicine makes your teeth fall out.
When the hospital in Australia cleaned his wounds, their method justified Mike’s lifelong belief that any ailment could be cured with Vaseline and Mercurochrome.
Sometimes he just hadn’t heard it right the first 12 times. Get someone to explain “chocolate caskets” and the difference between a “count” and an accountant.
Every family member and friend can regale you with a million instances where Mike overflowed with love and helpfulness. He took over for months at a time caring for his grandchildren across the country. He filled each house with food, messiness and adventure.
Ask granddaughter Kali about her parade down the street with Mike pushing her, a life-sized toy orangutan, her stuffed animals, a baby doll and a baby stroller. Like with all his grandchildren and children, he understood about really playing together and listening. He taught eldest grandson Peter to march on the same day he learned to walk.
He helped find visitors for an elderly patient just down the hall in the nursing home during his own broken hip stay. He got Max’s kids on and off the school bus every day for months when Max got a new job. He kissed everyone including our friends, the friends of our friends, and their friends. He insisted that we all show the same love to those around us.
He always believed that doctors and hospitals only wanted his money and said to the very end that nothing was wrong with his heart. It was all a plot.
So yes, even though he may not have had the medical part exactly right, his family agrees, there was never anything wrong with his heart.
Mike will be greatly missed by his wife of 64 years, Kathleen; his 101-year-old brother Joe; his children and in-laws; eight grandchildren: Peter, Zoey, Kali Alexandra, Jeremy, Jake, Josh, and Hraina; two great-grandchildren: Luna and Dash, and countless nieces, nephews and friends.
Visitation will be held on Monday from 7-9pm; Tuesday from 2-4 and 7-9pm at Henney, Bradwell & Nirella Funeral Home, 524 Washington Ave., Carnegie. Funeral Service will be held Wednesday, 10am at Rennerdale United Presbyterian Church, 151 Noblestown Rd., Carnegie. Interment will follow on July 15 at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies.
In lieu of flowers, consider a donation to the Heidelberg Soccer Club, or to HOPE Horseshoes of Pennsylvania Enterprises.