“He was just larger than life. Always smiling, always trying to get you to smile whether it’s cracking a joke or teasing or whatever,” Dr. Janice Darnell said as she remembered Bill Zadernak. “He was definitely full of life. You knew when ‘Z’ was in the house.”
Integrity, generosity, kindness and loyalty are words Darnell uses to describe Zadernak, her friend and colleague, who died at age 57 after a battle with cancer on March 24.
Darnell, who currently serves as the director of student support at Dawson County Schools, met Zadernak in the early 1990s when they were teachers together at Dawson County High School.
“He was a great, great educator,” Darnell said. “(He) loved children, loved helping kids to see that they all had something to contribute.”
Superintendent Damon Gibbs said Zadernak was one of the first people he met when he came to Dawson County five years ago and that he truly had a love for the children in the community.
“He was bigger than life and had a love for our children like few people I have ever met,” Gibbs said. “When you spent time with Bill, you never forgot that experience. He was one of a kind.”
Zadernak, originally from Butler, Pa., began his career in Dawson County in June of 1988 when he came to teach physical education and coach football and basketball. He retired in 2015 after a 30 year career in education.
During his career, Zadernak coached varsity football, middle school and junior varsity basketball and varsity baseball for Dawson County. He was also the athletic director for the high school.
In 2000 he was named the assistant principal at the previous Dawson County Middle School and became its principal in 2004.
“As a teacher and a colleague, I think he made everybody feel important,” Nicole LeCave said.
LeCave, director of teaching and learning at Dawson County Schools, remembers being a teacher and administrator under Zadernak’s administration and said establishing a place where people wanted to work was one of his strengths as a leader.
She thought back to one instance where he made required responsibilities enjoyable.
Though LeCave described supervising ball games as a task that was never fun in itself, she loved supervising games with Zadernak because he always made it fun.
“I laughed until I cried in the press box of Dawson County Middle School many times just from him joking and sharing stories about his family,” LeCave said.
Zadernak often referred to himself in the third person as “Z Man” and was fond of saying “Z Man to the rescue,” according to Darnell and LeCave, and they recounted many memories of “Z Man” coming to the rescue for his students.
“I think everybody knew that he really would do whatever the kids needed,” LeCave said. “I know personally of him driving students back and forth from practice because they wanted to participate in sports and the parents couldn’t pick them up, and he would drive them home. He would feed them on the way home.”
His friend Tracey Compton also remembers Zadernak’s generosity and selflessness as he strived to give the best to his students and staff.
“If you were around him and you said ‘I need gas in my car’ he’d say ‘well give me your keys, I’ll go fill it up for you,’” Compton said. “He would, and did, give you the shirt off his back.”
Compton first met Zadernak when she was on the interview team when he applied for the assistant principal position at the middle school. After she transitioned to her role as director of school improvement and accountability, she maintained a close friendship with Zadernak.
With their sons being the same age, Compton would always see Zadernak at the school baseball games as they watched their kids play on the field.
Though Compton’s husband was the coach at the time, she said Zadernak was always there to help the program whether it was by serving concessions in 100 degree weather by himself, transporting kids or purchasing equipment for them so they could play sports.
“He wouldn’t allow there to be a barrier,” Compton said.
Darnell said once when the middle school hosted a semi-formal dance with a dress code requiring boys to wear ties and ‘Z Man’ came to the rescue to help remove one of those barriers for a student.
“That was a big deal to dress up and have a tie, and there was a young man that came and he didn’t have a tie. Bill took the tie from around his neck and tied it on that little boy,” Darnell said. “The little boy was like ‘I can’t take your tie’ and he was like ‘yeah you got a Z Man tie now’ and he was just making light of it. But it was just so touching and that’s how he was all the time.”
With Zadernak, there were no barriers for students, teachers and parents.
Darnell said when their kids were little he opened his office to the kids and carpooled to Robinson Elementary School every morning to help his teachers with homeroom classes that were unable to drop their children off at the elementary school.
Darnell said Zadernak will be remembered as a “model of integrity, generosity and kindness” who was dedicated to his students, his family and his community.
“He was that way regardless of who he was talking to. You didn’t have to be his close inner circle of friends. If he could help somebody he was going to help them,” Darnell said. “He was dedicated not only to Dawson County Schools, he was a dedicated husband. He was a dedicated father to his children. He loved his family.”
A memorial service for Zadernak will be held at 11 a.m. on March 30 at Bearden Funeral Home Chapel. The family will receive friends at the funeral home from 4 to 8 p.m. March 29.
In lieu of flowers donations are requested in Bill’s memory to the REACH scholarship program at https://reachga.org/donate/. Please select Dawson County Schools as the district.