By Tim Engstrom
ANOKA — Past National Commander Dan Ludwig’s first impression of Al Zdon came at the 1996 Fall Conference.
Zdon, the former editor for the Hibbing Daily Tribune, wore khaki pants and looked a bit haggard.
“I slept in khaki pants for a week that didn’t look that bad,” Ludwig said to laughter in a room of 125 people. “I thought he was a homeless vet. … Never have I been so wrong about a first impression.”
Anoka Post 102 hosted a meal and celebration Friday, Nov. 15, called 23 Years of Storytelling to let Legion family and friends reflect on working with Zdon, who retires Dec. 31 as the American Legion Department of Minnesota’s communications director. The job title includes being the editor of The Minnesota Legionnaire and the secretary for Legion Baseball in Minnesota.
Zdon, 71, wrapped up the evening’s festivities by playing the banjo and singing “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” to a round of applause.
Ludwig said Zdon produced the finest state Legion newspaper in the country and commended him for capturing the history of Minnesota veterans.
A particularly poignant comment came from Dr. Rich Dinter of Hibbing: “Al Zdon could get men who were in the wars to talk about it. I want you to know that’s not a skill. That’s a calling.”
Department Commander Mark Dvorak said he shared a love of music with Zdon and called him “a class act and a true professional.”
Department Adjutant Randy Tesdahl called Zdon “a moral compass” and said everyone knew him. Rudy Boschwitz called Tesdahl to get an item in the Legion’s “bulletin.” When Tesdahl explained it was a statewide newspaper edited by Zdon, Boschwitz knew Zdon.
“You don’t run into anybody, it seems, who doesn’t know Al Zdon,” Tesdahl said.
Sandie Deutsch, executive secretary for the Auxiliary, told how she dropped her column for one issue. Zdon advised her to keep it in. He was right, she said, because Deutsch received many comments from readers wondering where it went.
Don Walser, the former department judge advocate, said a “survey” revealed the three most important factors to Zdon’s success: department staff members Laura Weber, Jennifer Kelley and Misty Padilla.
“They broke the mold when they made Al Zdon,” said Bill Barbknecht, the state’s representative on the National Executive Committee.
Many others commented, and the celebration included a few not-fit-for-print comments and jokes, but it was all in good fun.
Zdon’s wife, Mary, said raising six children was difficult enough but moving them from Hibbing to the Twin Cities was tough. Al loved being the editor and the family loved that community. His career in journalism allowed him to meet people from Walter Mondale to Jimmy Carter and to tour former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland.
She said the greatest characteristic about Al is he has so many excellent friends.
Married for 45 years, Al thanked Mary for her support over the years: “She has given me perspective on what is important in life, and, you know what, it’s not the Vikings.”
He recalled the support he received from the two Dans — Daniel of the Old Testament and Daniel of the New Testament.
The former, the late Dan Foley of Wabasha, “was perhaps the most extraordinary man I’d ever met in my life.” Foley, a retired appellate court judge and past national commander, took Zdon under his wing.
The latter, Ludwig of Red Wing, appointed Zdon to a national committee, a rare move for a staffer, and gave Zdon sound advice: “Tell the truth. Take the high road. Remember the cause.”
Zdon spoke of the baseball tournaments, fellow staff members and adjutants Tesdahl and Lyle Foltz.
On Tesdahl, Zdon said he had a big heart: “He would rather help a disabled veteran catch a three-pound bass in the Mississippi River than be in an office at the Veterans Service Building.”
What’s Zdon going to do Jan. 1?
“I will wake up and say, ‘Now what?’”