How an Iowa State grad overcame loss of both parents to thrive in public radio
Iowa State University student Kody Olson implores legislators to reconsider cuts to state schools in the state budget.
A few years ago, Henry Zimmerman's outlook was dominated by "nevers."
He thought he would never graduate from high school. He dropped out of Sioux City West High School when he was 16, just like his brother and sister before him.
He thought he would never go to college.
He thought he would never have a job beyond food service, repair or another trade.
But the 24-year-old Henry plans to be among about 5,000 people graduating from Iowa State University this week.
He's one of 10 finalists for the prestigious NPR Kroc Fellowship, a yearlong program designed to help identify the next generation of public media journalists.
"There's a part of me that still can't believe this is real," Henry said last week as he took his final exams. "I've always had this sort of imposter syndrome, that I didn't belong here and that I could never make it."
Now, Henry is a young man on the verge.
Early childhood struggles
Henry's path to a college diploma is one filled with tragedy, grit and personal growth.
His parents divorced when he was in elementary school, in part because of his father's alcoholism, Henry said.
He and his sister split time between their parents; four days at one house and four days at the other.
One day, when Henry was 6, he found his father passed out on the floor.
He poked and prodded his dad, but he wouldn't wake up.
"I was too young to understand that he was passed out drunk," Henry said.
He called his mother, and he and his sister went to live with her full time.
Henry's mother struggled with chronic depression. She struggled to keep a job. Financial and relationship troubles plagued her.
Sometimes his mom would just stop going to work and stay home all day.
"I would be thinking, 'You're the adult. You have to go to work,'" Henry said. "Pretty soon she would lose her job. Then she would get another one."
The stress of unemployment and the collapse of her third marriage proved too much for Henry's mother.
She shipped Henry and his sister back to live with their father.
Teenage Henry got into trouble with the law, the kind that ends up with juvenile records. They've since been expunged, but he described his troubles as "misdemeanor knucklehead stuff with my friends."
Henry's father provided little guidance. When Henry decided to drop out of high school, his father didn't protest.
His dad worked at a pop bottling factory and then made signs for heavy machinery at a beef processing plant.
One day, Henry's dad showed up to work drunk. He plowed his car into two or three cars in the parking lot and stumbled into the building.
He was fired on the spot, Henry said.
Henry's mother fell deeper into mental health issues. She suffered through manic episodes and crashed into deep depression. She attempted suicide a few times.
"Once, I went to visit her in the hospital and she was calling herself by a different name and didn't recognize me," Henry said.
Henry's father got a job working for FedEx and delivered pizzas on the side. Henry worked for Little Caesar's Pizza.
In October 2012, Henry got a call at work. It was his mom. His father was dead at 54.
"Talking to the police and paramedics, they said he basically drank himself to death," Henry said. "He just started drinking and didn't stop."
Henry was in shock; he offered to finish his shift. His bosses told him to go home.
Henry's relationship with his father had always been rocky and troubled by his dad's addiction, but now he was forced to cope with a new reality.
"I just kept thinking how different it was to not be able to see him ever again," Henry said. "It felt weird not having a father."
Henry felt guilty for not being sadder.
Unfortunately, Henry's opportunities for grief were only beginning.
Henry against the world
Henry started to piece together his life. He began attending Western Iowa Tech Community College. He earned the equivalent of a high school diploma. He took classes in repair of musical instruments.
"I figured if I was going have a blue-collar life, I might be able to be more selective with some of the programs," Henry said.
Henry got a job working weekends at KWIT, the public radio station in Sioux City. He loved it. He had his run of the station on weekends, managing national feeds and giving news updates.
Working the dials at KWIT-FM, Henry found his passion. He changed his major from instrument repair to a general education associate degree program with an eye to completing a four-year degree.
One Saturday, Henry went out to lunch with his mom. He had to work a morning shift at the station the next day, which was Mother's Day. His brother and sister made separate plans with their mom.
On Sunday morning, Henry's cellphone buzzed just as he was about to go on air. He let the call go to voicemail.
After he finished his work, he checked the message. It was his brother asking him to call him back right away.
"My brother and I didn't have the kind of relationship where he would just randomly ask me to call him on a Sunday," Henry said.
He called his brother back.
"Mom's dead," Henry remembers his brother saying.
Henry's mom took her own life at her apartment.
Henry thought his mother had been doing better. Their lunch had been pleasant. She had just moved into a new apartment. She was working.
Yet having lived with her chronic mood disorders all his life, Henry was not surprised his mother died by suicide.
"She seemed on the upswing, but it wasn't a complete shock," Henry said. "She had attempted before."
In less than three years, Henry and his siblings went from having two troubled parents to none.
Education kindles passion
Henry refused to let the tragic lives of his parents define him. He finished his degree at WIT and transferred to Iowa State University.
He enrolled in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication bent on launching a career in public radio.
At first, Henry looked at ISU as a means to an end. He was just in it for the degree. Then he would get a job.
But as he settled into courses, Henry started to learn reporting techniques, refined his writing skills and became proficient in software and hardware associated with his chosen trade.
"I started learning instead of just running to the finish line," Henry said.
More than that, though, Henry delighted in telling stories, both long-form features and straight news. The best journalism is the quest for the truth and humanity.
Growing up with an alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother left Henry frustrated because he could not speak his own truth. He and his siblings would ask his father to stop drinking. He ignored their pleas. His mother's condition was erratic.
There was, Henry said, a constant feeling of emergency but no one to really talk to about it with.
"My sister was more emotionally centered, and I talked to her some, but there were just some things you didn't talk about," Henry said. "There were obvious truths like Dad might die or Mom kill herself that you just didn't say."
Now Henry excels at telling the stories for others. And he believes everyone has a story worth telling.
"He believes all stories can and should be told," said Tracy Lucht, ISU associate professor of journalism. "He takes a deep interest in seeking the truth of other people's stories."
Lucht remains awestruck by Henry's determination.
Henry paid for school with a mix of scholarships, loans and grants. He worked at the campus radio station, KURE-FM. He picked up a work study job at the school library and worked odd jobs to make ends meet.
Henry plowed forward, seemingly undaunted by college life with no family support.
"The truth is, I've learned as much from him as I ever taught him," Lucht said.
Henry's main lesson to Lucht: the power of resiliency.
Last semester, Henry studied in Ireland. Henry worked hard to raise money for the trip and worked out the logistics. But one hiccup in Henry's planning put a lump in Lucht's throat.
"He wondered where he could park his car while he was away," Lucht said. "And that's when I realized this is a person that truly has no place to call home."
Many students would just park it at a parent's house, but Henry's parents were gone and he rented apartments near campus.
"I understood in that moment just how much he'd overcome and I thought if the roles reversed, I don't know if I could have done it," Lucht said.
Big opportunity ahead
Henry still struggles with self-esteem. He often feels as if his hardscrabble upbringing puts him behind the curve of his fellow journalism students.
Lucht disagrees. She believes Henry took the tragedies and mistakes of his youth and turned them into a drive to be a top student.
The Kroc Fellowship is the kind of gig that could punch Henry's ticket to the big time.
But even if he doesn't get it, no worries.
Henry, the young man whose future was filled with "nevers," has already proven he knows how to get what he wants against all odds.
Excelsior, Henry Zimmerman.
Columnist Daniel P. Finney is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DanielPFinney or on Twitter at @newsmanone.