Many good years, but the best are still to come
Born in Erie in 1940, Joe Zentis lived from ages two to 23 in McKean, PA – a small, secure, stable American town. Edi Terfy was born two years later in war-torn Budapest, Hungary. By the time she was 23, she had lived in Budapest, three or four places in Germany (including refugee camps), a couple of places in Western Australia, numerous Greyhound buses in the United States, and Vancouver, Canada.
Since Edi’s story is a bit more complex, we’ll take a look at Joe first.
Joe was the fourth of Al and Margaret Zentis’s five children (Bob, Gina, Ray, Joe, Joanne).
“We lived in a two-story house that was heated with a small coal-burning stove in the dining room,” Joe said. “We had little money, but were never poor.”
Joe attended a two-room elementary school in McKean, then Cathedral Prep in Erie. He graduated from Gannon College, and went into the army as a lieutenant, thanks to ROTC. After training, he was assigned to Munich, Germany.
Edi grew up in very different circumstances. Her maternal grandfather was a judge, and therefore very upper middle class. His daughter, Melinda Zimburg, married Tibor Terfy, a captain in the Hungarian army, in 1937. Their first daughter, Meli, was born in 1938.
By the time Edi was born in 1942, World War II was tipping the middle class on its head. Tibor was sent to the eastern front and ended up a prisoner of war. His family didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. In 1944, as the Russians approached from the East, Edi’s mother took her mother-in-law and her two daughters west on the last train out of Hungary. With only the few possessions they could carry, they were dumped off the train into a field in northern Germany.
“Somehow my mother managed to get us a place to live at a cloister in Luneburg,” Edi said. “She supported us by sewing for other people.”
Through the Red Cross, Edi’s mother continuously tried to learn the fate of her husband. Then one joyous day he just showed up at their door. The reunited family continued to live in Luneburg.
“Papi found work at the British canteen,” Edi said. “He always ate there, never at home. My mother sewed big pockets inside his coat so he could sneak food home for us.”
Conditions in postwar Germany were bad.
“We had to go to a refugee camp,” Edi said. “There was no privacy, with four families living in a single room.”
The only country accepting Hungarian refugees was Australia. They sailed there in June, 1950, on an overcrowded refugee ship. When they arrived, they had to live in temporary asbestos buildings in a refugee camp.
“At least food was plentiful,” Edi said. “Mother started working as a nurse in a hospital. I don’t know how she did that, because she had no training at all. Dad got a job in a talc factory.”
Eventually, they were able to build a house in South Perth, and their life settled into a more normal course.
Edi went to strict Catholic elementary schools, but that didn’t tame her free-spirited, fun-loving disposition. In public high school, she took every opportunity to enjoy herself, rather than study.
“They warned me that if I cut any more classes, they would inform my parents,” she said. “But one day some friends wanted to go to the beach, so I skipped study hall went with them. I got back late for the next class. The teacher asked me where I had been. I said, ‘In the library.’ He said, ‘Do you always get your hair wet in the library?’ I said, ‘No, only sometimes.”
When she finished high school, she told her parents she wanted to travel around the world.
“My mother told me I’d never make it. That settled it. I worked all kinds of jobs to make money. In April, 1964, I set sail to America with a friend named Lori.”
The two bought “99 days for $99” Greyhound bus tickets and traveled all over the United States, often sleeping on the buses en route to wherever they happened to be going. Before the end of the 99 days, Lori’s father had a heart attack, so she had to return to Australia. Edi was determined to go on, but she needed to earn some money. She couldn’t get a work visa in the states, so she headed for Canada. She arrived at the border with no visa, which normally took months to get. With tears in her eyes, she played an Academy Award level “damsel in distress” role for the audience of Canadian border guards. They cut the red tape, and she had a visa within a day.
She worked almost a year in Vancouver. Then she and two friends, an Australian named Dianne and a French-Canadian named Lucette, traveled by train across Canada, sailed to England, bought a Mini-Minor, and wandered around Europe. Their agreement was that if one of them ran out of money, she would have to drop out and get a job. Dianne did that in Italy. Edi and Lucette ran out of money in Munich, Germany, and got a job at the U.S. Army Officers Club. That’s where she met Joe on Veterans’ Day, 1965.
Their engagement six weeks later brought her trip around the world to a halt. They were married five months later, on April 13, 1966. Five days later they left for the United States. After a 30-day leave in McKean, they drove to California. Joe got on a military plane headed to Vietnam; Edi flew back home to Perth.
Joe survived the year in Vietnam unharmed, and even more amazingly, Edi survived the year with her parents. They both arrived back in McKean in May, 1967. After a month’s leave, they moved to Joe’s next assignment at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Their first daughter, Michelle, was born there.
In August, 1968, Joe got out of the army and started graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. Their second daughter, Katherine, was born there in November.
After the second year, Joe was granted a year-long fellowship to study theater in Europe. They sold everything they owned and went together as a family. They bought a car and camping equipment so they could live cheaply.
“We got a break from camping while living for a month in a chalet overlooking Lake Geneva, with a spectacular view of the Alps,” Joe said. “When it got too cold to camp, we got an apartment in Paris.”
Edi’s parents had never seen the kids, so they offered to buy plane tickets for Edi and the girls to fly to Australia. They flew from London on an eastward route in February. With their arrival in Perth, Edi at last accomplished her trip around the world.
In the summer of 1974, after completing most of the work for a doctorate in Comparative Literature, Joe started teaching at Villa Maria College in Erie. Their third daughter Jennifer was born in December, 1975.
In the summer of 1976, Joe did the classic 1970s academic drop-out and quit teaching. Edi and he opened an upholstery shop in McKean, which they ran until 1988 when they moved to Hermitage where Joe became editor of a church magazine.
“Life is crazy sometimes,” Joe said. “After moving from McKean, PA, about 10 miles from Erie, to Hermitage, about 90 miles away, I got a job as employee communications specialist at GE Transportation Systems in Erie. That’s a very long commute, so I stayed three nights a week at my parents’ house in McKean.
That lasted three years before GE “right-sized” Joe out the door. It took him a year to find a job as communications specialist for the Air Line Pilots Association near the Pittsburgh Airport. He had to commute sixty miles a day for the six years. Finally he decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. He decided he needed a job with a very short commute, so he took up freelance writing.
“To get to work, I had to walk out of my bedroom, down the stairs, through the living room and kitchen, into my office,” he said.
That’s where he designed and published books for his own company, Green Street Press, He also continued his freelance writing, mostly for the Herald in Sharon, PA.
“We both were delighted with the location of his office,” Edi said, “because they love being together as much as possible.”
She did seamstress work for others and passionately pursued her hobby, quilting and sewing, at home. She taught Joe enough about sewing for him to put together a few quilts of his own. His first one won “Best Design” at the Canfield Fair. Edi and he have both won other ribbons as well with their quilts.
Their daughter Michelle works for Microsoft near Washington, DC. Katherine and her daughter Sydney are doing very well, with Katherine selling furniture for John V. Shultz Company in Erie. Jennifer and her husband Dave Young live in State College with their two sons, David and Connor.
“We only knew each other six weeks when we got engaged,” Joe said. “We can’t believe that we knew very much about each other before we got engaged. There were a number of people back then who said that we didn’t know enough, and that we’d never make it.”
They may not have known much, but they must have known the right things.
“We’ve had many good years,” Joe said, “and we are confident that next year, 2009, will be the best year of our life so far – with many other best years still to come.”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009