By Doc Souza
Long time Elk Grove resident and community leader John Zehnder passed away on Saturday. The Zehnder family has been a large part of the history of Elk Grove for the last 75+ years. The community lost a leader, but his legacy will live on forever through his works and his family.
As someone that grew up here in Elk Grove, the Zehnder name is something I have always known and respected. Our family farms were only a couple of miles apart. My siblings and I grew up with the Zehnder boys in Elk Grove going to Elk Grove high school. There has probably always been a Zehnder in an Elk Grove school for the past 60 years. The family has always given back and served the community by volunteering and working in the fire department and Elk Grove schools. The Cosumnes Fire Department has lowered their flags to half staff to honor John Zehnder for his 45 years as a volunteer fireman.
When asked to describe John Zehnder, his family said,
John Zehnder moved to Elk Grove in 1942 and graduated from Elk Grove High in 1945. He was married to his wife Nancy, for 67 years. John and Nancy raised seven sons, John, Jr. (Linda); Tom (Nancy); Mike (Kathy); Dan (Richelle); Steve (Paula); Bryan (Colleen) and Paul (Shelly). They also have 23 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
In the summer of 2017, John and the family were honored with the opening of Zehnder Ranch Elementary School. I contacted the family over the weekend to prepare this story to honor John and they said, “Our dad was also honored by the opening of Zehnder Ranch Elementary School in 2017. We are grateful that we could watch him enjoy and participate in the honor and experiences that came with the opening of the school that was named for him (and his family.) The school office is filled with articles, pictures and some of dad’s awards. The school’s motto is “A Legacy of Leadership” after him.”
Video of the opening of Zehnder Ranch Elementary School on July 13, 2017
John Zehnder seated in the middle surrounded by his family at the opening of Zehnder Ranch
As part of the school opening, Zehnder Ranch Elementary School released a biography of the Zehnder Family.
The Zehnder family has been an integral part of the Elk Grove community in agriculture, business and community services for nearly eight decades. The Zehnder Ranch was located along what are now Highway 99 and West Stockton Road, near what is now the Auto Mall.
Alfred Zehnder purchased the property in 1939 and established a dairy there. Later, the property expanded to 210 acres and was sold to and operated by his brother, Louis. He and his wife, Anne, raised milk cows and chickens. Their sons, John and Louis Jr., and daughter Joanne, all attended Elk Grove schools and graduated from Elk Grove High School (Classes of 1945, 1946, 1952)
In 1961, John and his wife, Nancy and their sons, lived on the ranch. All seven of them are graduates of Elk Grove High School, and they all live in the Elk Grove area. In 1982, the dairy business ended, and the ranch was converted to a beef cattle operation. Later, the property was purchased for a school and for development.
John Zehnder, Sr. has supported and contributed to the Elk Grove community for nearly 70 years. He and his wife Nancy are Elk Grove High School graduates, and so are all their sons, John Jr. (Linda), Tom (Nancy), Mike (Kathy), Dan (Richelle), Steve (Paula), Bryan (Colleen), and Paul (Shelly). All of the sons have pursued careers and raised their own families in Elk Grove, continuing their father and mother’s tradition of community involvement and passing it on to their children. All of the 23 grandchildren graduated from Elk Grove schools. Currently 6 of the 20 great-grandchildren attend Elk Grove schools.
John, Sr. has tremendous loyalty and pride for Elk Grove. He is past president and lifetime member of the Elk Grove Lions Club which recognized him with the Melvin Jones Award. He has been an Elk Grove Fire Department volunteer for 43 years and was president of the Firemen’s Association. John Sr.’s love of sports is reﬂected in his active involvement with Elk Grove High School football for over 60 years operating the scoreboard clock during Thundering Herd home games. He has been president of the Elk Grove Softball Association; a Cub master for Boy Scouts of America; has coached Pop Warner, Little League, soccer and basketball; and helped start the Western Festival Parade. John is a member of the California Cattlemen’s Association and the Knights of Columbus. John served on the Board of Directors of First Security Bank of Elk Grove for 20 years, and was a member of the Cosumnes College Agricultural Board and the Northern California Peace Ofﬁcer Association. He was named Elk Grove’s Citizen of the Year in 1969 and is in the Elk Grove High School Hall of Fame.
Additional examples of the Zehnder family community involvement: John Zehnder, Jr. 15 a 34 year retired Elk Grove High School teacher and has coached football for 40 years; Dr. Tom Zehnder designed and developed the Franklin Ranch Pet Hospital which he currently owns; Mike Zehnder is a retired Battalion Chief after 36 years at the Elk Grove/Cosumnes Fire Department and his wife Kathy retired from the Ofﬁce of the Superintendent after 36 years serving EGUSD; Mike and Kathy’s daughter, Kelly Zehnder-Olson is a counselor at Sheldon High School and her husband Jason Olson is and engineer at the Elk Grove/Cosumnes Fire Department; Mike and Kathy’s daughter Julie Zehnder Steffen is a teacher at Elitha Donner Elementary School and her husband Matthew Steffen is a teacher at Cosumnes Oaks High School; Mike and Kathy’s son-in-law Tim Lesher is a Fire Fighter/Paramedic at the Elk Grove/Cosumnes Fire Department; Dan Zehnder’s son, Scott, is an engineer at the Elk Grove/Cosumnes Fire Department; Dan’s son, Brandon, is an automotive technology teacher at Cosumnes River College; Dan’s son, Tyler, is a teacher at Markofer Elementary School and his wife, Amanda, is a teacher at Carroll Elementary School; Dan’s daughter, Danelle Zehnder Smith, is a teacher at Elitha Donner; Steve Zehnder is a retired Captain at the Elk Grove/Cosumnes Fire Department; Bryan Zehnder is a current Captain at the Elk Grove/Cosumnes Fire Department and his wife Colleen is a teacher at Ellen Feickert Elementary School; Paul Zehnder is a current Battalion Chief at the Elk Grove/Cosumnes Fire Department.
John Zehnder Sr. and his son, Mike, have been honored as Elk Grove’s Citizens of the Year and both currently serve on the Board of Directors of the Elk Grove Regional Scholarship Foundation. The contributions of the Zehnder family to the Elk Grove area will always be remembered at Zehnder Ranch Elementary School.