By Celine Klosterman
NEWTON — Nine months after pro-life activist and Sacred Heart parishioner Mary Zmolek died in 2010, fellow parishioner Liz Hammerly gave birth to a son with a heart defect after resisting suggestions to consider an abortion.
Just west of Newton and south of Interstate 80, a billboard promoting respect for life serves as a quiet tribute to all three people. Mary’s husband, Lee, set up the sign in June as a memorial for his wife. Their daughter, Pauli Zmolek Eades, painted on the billboard an image of Hammerly holding a baby boy. Next to the image are the words “Pro Mom Pro Baby Pro Life.”
“I wanted something simple that made a statement,” Lee said.
A member of Knights of Columbus Msgr. TJ McCann Council 2663, he first considered putting up a pro-life billboard in 2007. But as Mary grew sick with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — a lung condition — his plan went on the back burner. More than two years after she died on April 23, 2010, he returned to the idea of setting up a billboard — this time, in her memory.
“She was a champion for lots of causes, particularly the unborn,” Lee said. She volunteered for Iowa Right to Life, advocated for pro-life legislation and boycotted business with ties to the pro-choice movement. At Sacred Heart, she served as a catechist for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and as a eucharistic minister, he added.
After searching local property records, he asked and received permission from an owner of land near Interstate 80 to build a pro-life sign on the site. Pauli, a professional artist who lives near Washington, D.C., agreed to paint an image of a mother and child on the billboard during a visit to Iowa. Family of her longtime friend Kathy Hammerly, stewardship coordinator at Sacred Heart, suggested Pauli base the image off Kathy’s daughter-in-law Liz.
In 2010, Liz had become pregnant with her first son. After a routine ultrasound at 20 weeks and a subsequent visit to a specialist, she and her husband, Ike, discovered their baby had a rare heart defect known as Ebstein’s anomaly. “Most of these babies die in utero,” she said.
Doctors brought up the possibility of an abortion several times. Liz felt pressured. “I was mad. I was adamant. They told us of states that would actually do abortions farther along. That blew my mind.”
Ike’s uncle, a priest, suggested the parents give their unborn son a name to use in prayers. The couple chose Lincoln Joseph.
“We prayed a lot — a lot — those next 20 weeks,” Liz said. “That’s the only way I can explain how we got through it.”
Lincoln was born Jan. 19, 2011, with an overgrown heart that filled his chest cavity. Despite two open-heart surgeries, he died 13 days later.
“I love him so much and can’t wait until we reunite,” Liz wrote on her CarePage, a blog for patients and families.
On June 19, 2012, she gave birth to another son, a healthy boy named Brigham Issac, whom the family calls Briggs. To inspire her painting for the pro-life sign, Pauli photographed Liz cradling him. Liz also gave the artist a photo of Lincoln. “I didn’t get to hold him until he passed away,” the mother explained.
Over three days, Pauli painted an image of a baby reaching up toward his mother, who is looking down at him, smiling. “I had to paint strong so you could see it from the highway,” she said.
On June 1, Lee’s Knights of Columbus council set up the frame and the two five-foot-square boards that make up the billboard. Drivers traveling east on I-80 can see the sign near mile marker 162.
Liz, whose family now lives in Decorah, said her daughter, Addalynn, likes it when her parents drive by the billboard. “It’s an opportunity for her to see her younger brother. It’s a good message to all.”