Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Love Story
Affirmed Life in Time of War

They met in the Weapons Room, where sports receptions were held in those days.

Bill Zadel and his wife, Betty, were married 46 years.

Bill Zadel with the Army football coach Red Blaik, receiving an athletes scholar award in 1964.

Betty Nickla was visiting the United States Military Academy to watch her brother wrestle, when somebody sidled up to her on the buffet line and said a very nice football player would like to meet her.

Turned out, Bill Zadel was quite a player a tight end and defensive tackle, who would play nearly 60 minutes when Army beat Roger Staubach and Navy, 11-8, in 1964.

I said, O.K., Betty Zadel recalled the other day. I was impressed right from the start. He wasn't one of those guys who talked about himself. He just, you know, he seemed like such a good guy and down to earth. We started dating toward the end of his yearling year, and then he went away for training in the summertime in the U.S., and then we started dating as he came back as a cow, which was his junior year, and after that, we were engaged. It was meant to be.

They were married 46 years, as he took an epic American path, from college all-star to Marine in Vietnam to corporate executive and solid family man the ideal of scholar-athlete-citizen that football, in particular, likes to display.

On Sept. 8, Zadel woke up early to make coffee and read the paper, as he always did, and died suddenly, at 68. On Thursday, family and friends will honor him with a service at West Point.

This is the second wave of deaths for the class of 1965. The natural life cycle wave arrived much too soon for a healthy man like Zadel; the earlier one came in the late '60s, when classmates were being killed in Vietnam. It began to get personal, as Zadel's good friend and quarterback Rollie Stichweh puts it.

The two teammates came home, healthy embodiments of what Johnny Cash expressed in his song "Drive On," about a survivor: You're a walkin' talkin' miracle from Vietnam.

The miracle for Zadel included coming home to Betty and raising their three children, Bart, Elizabeth and David, enjoying six grandchildren and rising to the top of corporate life.

Early this year, Zadel filled out a questionnaire for his class records, in neat handwriting and thoughtful prose. In 19 pages, he sheepishly recalled being given a better grade than he deserved ? one time after beating Staubach, following five straight losses to Navy. He talked with pride about his great education at West Point and being accepted into the Marines.

He got into the Corps of Engineers because of his class standing, his wife said the other day, which I thought was terrific because our first duty assignment was going to be in Germany. But he called me and said he was so excited because he was able to be in the Marine Corps because his father was also in the Corps, and I said: Oh, my gosh, we're going to be in Quantico and not Germany. So that was a big surprise.

Zadel graduated June 9, 1965, and married Betty on Long Island three days later. The very large suitor was accepted by her father and her three athletic brothers, and after a touchy tour at Guantanamo in Cuba, he went off to war in 1967.

She said, I remember when he left for Vietnam, he said, If I don't come back, don't be upset, because I'm doing exactly what I was trained to do.

In Vietnam, Zadel wrote: At 6-4, I was surrounded by Vietnamese Ranger counterparts who stood between 4-8 and 5-4. I was a big target, to say the least. Fortunately, he added, the Vietcong were bad shots, and he perfected running full speed in a duckwalk.

He came home with numerous medals to a country of growing doubts. When Betty went to New Jersey to welcome her husband, she had to drive through a swarm of protestors just to get on the base.

In 1968, Zadel was assigned to his hometown, Chicago, in charge of recruiting. Somebody scheduled a swearing-in ceremony for 100 recruits downtown during the 1968 Democratic national convention. The event went on, with the help of the Chicago police.

With his service coming to an end, Zadel resigned from the Marines, turned down a tryout with the Bears and began a corporate tour of duty that involved, Betty estimated, 18 moves.

Zadel was calm, methodical, logical, smart but also impatient, she said. He wanted to keep moving onward and upward. He worked for Quaker Oats, earning an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, and moved on to Johnson and Johnson, Abbott Laboratories and Corning, and served as chief executive of Ciba-Corning Diagnostics, Millipore Corporation and Mykrolis Corporation before his retirement in 2004.

Betty Zadel, a tennis teacher and player for many years, praised her husband as a good father who refused to work weekends and gave up golf to have time with their children. People knew he had helped beat Staubach, and people also knew he had served in Vietnam.

Zadel played nearly 60 minutes when Army defeated Navy by a field goal in 1964.

I think Bill felt he didn't have to defend himself for being in Vietnam, Betty said. If people wanted to know about it, he was happy to talk about what he did. He wasn't a very political person. He kept his leanings to himself.

But not totally. In 2009, Zadel and Stichweh and their teammates assembled at the academy to honor Paul Dietzel, their coach, and Dietzel's wife, Anne. Zadel and Stichweh (whom I covered when he was in high school) sat around the Thayer Hotel and, somewhat to my surprise, started talking about Vietnam.

Stichweh had served with the 173rd Airborne, at Hill 875 near Dak To, one of the more gruesome battles of that war, and Zadel had served about 10 miles away, but they learned of the proximity only when they returned home safely.

Both officers were proud to feel they had been fighting to stop communism.

That was my story at cocktail parties, Zadel said in 2009, volunteering that he had changed his mind after learning about the misgivings of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

I read the excerpts from McNamara's book, Zadel said. I was incensed.

As we sat in the hotel, Stichweh noted that his 26 classmates buried at the academy had all died after McNamara had his own little epiphany.

Did they draw any overt lines between Vietnam and the current involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter apparently winding down? Not really. Besides, the Zadels' youngest child, David, served two hitches as a Marine in Iraq.

I'll tell you what, Betty said. It was tough having Bill in Vietnam, but it was a heck of a lot tougher to have a son in a war zone. Let me tell you, as a mother, you protect them your whole life, and then to have to worry about it. Bill was very stoic. All he kept saying was, David is well trained; don't worry about David, but I knew he was as concerned as I was. He just handled it better than I did.

By all accounts, Zadel handled everything well. He was a true believer who had room for complexity. Asked in the questionnaire about his most notable experience, Zadel wrote, being part of the winning Army football team for the 1964 victory over Navy.

He added: It taught me the lifelong lesson that, with hard work and strong desire, you can do anything. And doing it as part of a team is the Best! On Thursday at West Point, even Army people will agree that beating Navy was just part of Bill Zadel's legacy.