This might be a shock, but my fondest memories of Jim Zabel have little to do with Iowa Hawkeye sports.
They have little to do with what made Zabel a broadcasting legend because I was fortunate to have seen another side of him — not necessarily a quieter side, but a side that showed how much he genuinely cared about people.
I first knew Jim Zabel, who died Thursday at the age of 91, as my neighbor. He lived one block from my family’s house in a section of northwest Des Moines called Beaverdale.
He always drove a big, shiny car, always kept his yard looking immaculate and always had a friendly thing to say, even to the kids in the neighborhood who often got in his way. I couldn’t tell you how many times Jim had to slow down while driving one of his big, shiny cars because my friends and I were blocking the street, either by playing whiffle ball or kick the can or some kind of game.
Never once did he blow on his horn or scream for us to get out of his way despite a schedule that always kept him on the move. Sometimes, he even leaned out the window and encouraged us to have fun.
It got to the point where I knew when Jim would be driving by on certain days and looked forward to our brief encounters.
One time he stopped in front of our house and the younger of his two daughters got out of his car to give my older brother a May basket. Jim chatted with my mother for a few minutes and told her that he was delivering May baskets.
The truth is he was being a father and a friend. He was consumed by his high-profile job, but it didn’t define him.
As I grew older I learned what Jim did for a living and thought it was cool having the Voice of the Hawkeyes living so close to me. But I still thought it was cooler how he treated me as a neighbor.
Jim treated me the same way as an adult and the same way as a journalist. It was kind of strange going from being one of the kids in his neighborhood to being alongside him covering the Hawkeyes.
I was sad when the University of Iowa gave exclusive broadcasting rights in 1996 to a company that chose a different play-by-play announcer. I knew how much Jim cherished covering the Hawkeyes. The fact that he stayed positive after the switch speaks of his character. I know how much it hurt him.
To me, it was the little things that made Jim special, not that he was a giant in his industry. He always asked how my parents were doing and wanted me to say hello for him.
And he always gave me far too much praise for covering the Hawkeyes, even though not everything I wrote was positive. I appreciated Jim’s support, but knew that he was biased where my family was concerned.
Jim had a reputation for being tight with his money and for being nowhere in sight when it was time to pay a tab. And while there is some truth to it — OK, a lot of truth to it — there was another side to him.
My parents saw it first-hand about 30 years ago while waiting for a table at a neighborhood restaurant in Beaverdale in which Jim was a regular.
Jim saw that my father was about to pay for two beverages and he told the bartender to put them on his tab. My mother said Friday that she remembers to this day the look of disbelief on the bartender’s face.
“He said it was so unusual to see Jim paying for somebody else’s tab because it was usually the other way around,” said my mother.
Jim and I stayed in touch over the years because he liked to call from his home in Arizona for updates on the Iowa football and men’s basketball teams. Even in his final days, Jim was curious and always trying to satisfy his need to know. I considered it an honor that he would call me for updates because his options were limitless.
I also considered it an honor that Jim had me on his Sunday night radio show called “2 Guys Named Jim” as much as he did. I sometimes wondered if his co-host, former Iowa State football coach Jim Walden, grew tired of my frequent guest spots.
But I also knew why I was so high on Jim Zabel’s guest list. It wasn’t because I had all the answers, but rather because I was his friend and former neighbor in Beaverdale. We shared a bond that started long before I knew he was a giant in the radio industry.
Jim was devoted to the Hawkeyes, but he didn’t hold it against my father for playing football at Notre Dame. Jim even showed a soft spot for the Irish in the presence of my family.
Jim was passionate about his work, but even more so about people he met along the way. He had a gift for gab and used it to become a force in the radio booth.
He often got carried away with his play-by-play announcing with cries like “I love it! I love it! I love it!” And he wasn’t bashful about anything, including his unwavering support for the Hawkeyes and his willingness to poke fun at the Cyclones.
Jim also was willing to poke fun at himself and be the brunt of jokes because he knew it would help to lighten the mood. He spent much of his life trying to lighten the mood around him.
Jim Zabel epitomized what it meant to live life to the fullest. He’ll be remembered mostly for what he said on the radio and for how he said it. But I’ll remember him more for how he treated me as a neighbor and a friend.
Rest in peace, Jim.