John M. Zielinski

1940 - 2021

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John M. Zielinski, 80, of Red Lodge, Montana, formerly of Kalona, Iowa, died Feb. 4, 2021, in St. Vincent de Paul Hospital, Billings, Montana. Inurnment will be in the veterans’ administration cemetery near Billings.

Born July 17, 1940, in Leavenworth, Kansas, he was the son of Roman and Eva (Marston) Zielinski.  Immediately after graduation from Wynadotte High School, Kansas City, Kansas, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. First stationed in Lincoln, Nebraska, he was an announcer for the military radio station, a position he retained when transferred to Torrejón Air Base, Madrid, Spain, doing broadcast in English and Spanish.

Receiving an overseas discharge four years later, he remained in Madrid as contributor for Guidepost Magazine, an association that started when he met and interviewed Sean Flynn who was starring in the Son of Captain Blood (Paramount, 1964).  His acquaintance with Mr. Flynn led Mr. Zielinski to work as an extra on 55 Days at Peking (Allied Artists, 1963). With Guidepost he soon learned providing photos paid more and began photographing with a used Yashica twin lens reflex camera.

The camera came with him when he returned to the states and enrolled at the University of Iowa, Iowa City.  Learning about the Amish in nearby Kalona, he initially hitchhiked to the town to start a documentary project that, three years later, with the help of an Iowa Arts Council grant, became a national traveling exhibit and the foundation for eight published books on the Amish over two decades.  His best known non-Amish books are Portrait of Iowa (with Paul Engle)(1974), Unknown Iowa (compilation of the Farm security Administration photographic work in Iowa during the Great Depression) (1977) and Mesquakie and Proud of It (1976).

While at the university, he met Mary Vanderman, also a student.  They married, became correspondents for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, covering, among other stories, the Vietnam War protests and Steve Smith’s draft card burning at the Soapbox Soundoff at the University of Iowa Student Union on October 10, 1965.  Their coverage led to a job offer with Associated Press.  In 1966 the couple moved to Milwaukee to work for Associated Press and the Milwaukee Journal.  They also were in Chicago for a major Martin Luther King, Jr, rally and Mr. Zielinski’s photograph of the Civil Rights leader was widely published.  Later the King photo and the iconic Amish Boys Running, published in Life Magazine, were on permanent display in the Time-Life Building.

In a 50-year career, Mr. Zielinski’s work as a photojournalist, either as staff or freelancer, was published in major magazines, including Time Magazine, Life Magazine, The New York Times, and Parish Herald Tribune.  He was staff photographer for the Connecticut Commission on the Arts for a major historical buildings survey project, and photographed both Mennonite and Amish historical areas in Europe for Tour Imagination of Pennsylvania.

As a photographer for Maryknoll Magazine he was sent throughout Latin American to document government actions against student protestor in Mexico City, attempted genocide against native peoples in Guatemala, and the revolution in El Salvador and Nicaragua led by the Berrigan Bothers.  From the late 1960s through the 1970s, Mr. Zielinski was represented by Three Lions Agency in New York City.

In 1972, he founded the Kalona Fall Festival, a plan he brought to the Kalona Historical Society that became the major event for the Kalona Historical Village, held annually until 2020 when COVID forced cancellation.

Throughout the 1970s, Mr.  Zielinski worked with Venezuelan filmmaker Nelson Arietti on a Paul Engle film for American Masters; an Iowa Arts Council multimedia show about the University of Iowa’s International writing Program and a traveling exhibit about the Mesquakies, funded by the Iowa Arts Council. In addition he did an extensive photography exhibit, The Brotherhood of Man, for which he received an Iowa Humanities grant, and represented the first art display in the University of Iowa’s hospital.  

He was an awarding winning member of the Photographic Society of America, and the Society of American Photographers.  He was a graduate of the University of Iowa and of the Famous Photographers School in Westport, Connecticut.

More than six years ago, he retired to Montana where his maternal great-grandfather, in the 19th century, had operated a trading post and later became a lawman.

He is survived by two sons: William R. Zielinski of Iowa City and Zane L.  Zielinski of Chicago; a daughter-in-law: Kathy Escamilla Zielinski of Chicago and one grandson: Sean R. Zielinski of Chicago; his former wife: Mary of Kalona; one sister: Sharon Scharff of Leavenworth, Kansas; and one nephew: Robert Gaiser Jr. of Missouri.

Because of insufficient financial recourses, a fundraising effort is being arranged to cover final medical and burial costs.  For details, you may contact his estate’s representative, Zane Zielinski, at trustee@zanezielinski.com

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