By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — The family of the late Anita Zahs, a St. Ambrose University assistant biology professor, wanted to honor her memory. With their financial contribution, the university completed extensive work on the Anita Zahs greenhouse and pollinator garden at Lewis Hall.
St. Ambrose University President Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, said the university traditionally offers prayer and a blessing at the dedication of buildings. The greenhouse was no exception, as family, colleagues, students and others participated in the Oct. 4 dedication.
Chaplain Father Thom Hennen read from the book of Genesis and offered a prayer. “We dedicate and ask you to bless this greenhouse in honor of our sister, friend and colleague, Dr. Anita Zahs. As she was so dedicated to the study of nature, so may the students who use this space grow in wonder and love of all living things. May we all be better students of the earth for the advance of science, for the true flourishing of humanity in relationship to all life and the responsible care of our common home.” Afterwards, he sprinkled the greenhouse and garden with holy water.
Biology Department Chairman Neil Aschliman said Zahs was “an amazing colleague and friend. While she was a member of our team for only three bright years, she inspired her colleagues and students in countless and enduring ways. Anita was a true Ambrosian.” Devoted to her students, “Her door and her heart were open to all,” he said.
Zahs lived her values daily. “To reduce her carbon footprint, clear her head and engage in nature, she walked or biked the long distance to and from campus every day. She would shrug off miserable weather and personal discomfort to stay true to her beliefs,” Aschliman said. “She was one of the most unflappable, determined and fearless people I’ve had the privilege to know. She soldiered on without complaint through her long fight with cancer and indeed kept teaching until the last few days of her inspiring life.”
Dennis Tarasi, assistant professor of biology, explained how the family’s donation helped with capital improvements. One of Zahs’ former students, London Williams, hoped St. Ambrose would develop and maintain a pollinator garden in her memory. Amy Blair and the Green Life environmental club helped bring the pollinator garden to life in a space below the window of the office the late professor occupied.
The university’s greenhouse had slowly fallen into disrepair over the decades. When the heating, cooling and inadequate lighting systems failed, it closed. “In the fall of 2019 the greenhouse looked the part of an abandoned research space — broken equipment, leaking windows, missing keys so the only entry was through a wood staircase in the basement,” Tarasi said. Squirrels were the only ones using the greenhouse.
When the Zahs family approached the university about honoring Anita Zahs, Tarasi and Blair worked with Jim Hannon of the university’s physical plant department to explore upgrades. “As you can see, the greenhouse is still a work in progress. New, insulated windows are the next big item on the to-do list,” Tarasi said. COVID-19 has slowed the timeline, but the greenhouse is fully functional. Students in Biology 108 are growing soybeans in different climate scenarios, for example.
Anita Zahs’ sister, Penny Danley, marks the time since her sister’s death – one-and-half years ago. She shared stories of how things that her children have done remind her of her sister. She said she told her children, “if Anita meant anything to you, she was with and in you.” Anita referred to her students as family, too, Danley said. “So you too, have her in you/with you. Anita loved her job, she loved teaching, but most of all, she loved her kids.”
Danley thanked the students and St. Ambrose community for the garden and plaque. “I know it means the world to me and my family that her memory will live on here at St. Ambrose; thanks to you.”