Fighting for 100 years: Lehigh Valley legend Joe Zeller reflects on career of public service
The Great Depression, 1933. Joseph Zeller and his younger brother Frank are promoting fights for a gangster. Joe is a lad of 14 and is learning the ropes of human nature and the difference between what people say and what people do.
Joe’s mother, Frances, has already passed. His father, Carl, runs a tavern in Campus, Illinois, and later, Godley, Illinois, and the elder Zeller is concerned about the influence the operation has on the youth so he moves the boys to southern Indiana to live with their aunt Josephine, who has several farms and supplements her income by making moonshine, most of which is transported to Chicago.
“We had to work hard and do the best we could,” Joe recalls. “I did what I could on my own.”
The boys would labor on the farm. And make no mistake, it is labor. They learn a very valuable lesson about work. They also learn about being resourceful and learn the liquor production trade for three to four years. They have to learn to stay one step ahead of the federal revenue agents looking for their cut. Young Joseph also learns something else: What makes people tick.
The informal education isn’t the Ivy League, but it serves Joe well. He has to hustle to stay above water. He does it all. As a teenager he puts on the gloves and learns how to box in the church gym and later fights in Golden Gloves contests. As the Great Depression drags on, Joseph works as a short-order cook, he learns to tap dance for a few bucks, he sells vacuum cleaners door-to-door, and becomes interested in the trade of an electrician.
Call it an education of, by and for the people. It lays a foundation for Joe to become one of the most recognized politicians during the 1960s and 1970s in the borough of Emmaus and the Lehigh Valley.
Fightin’ Joe Zeller
There’s an old Pennsylvania-Dutch saying that when it’s hot and humid, the weather is “close.” The weather is close on this early September afternoon when Joe Zeller agrees to an interview for his 100th birthday, which is Sept. 19. He’s ready for the interview at the kitchen table in his country home near New Tripoli, Lowhill Township, Lehigh County, where he lives with his long-time friend and former secretary Ann Wertman. Joe looks sharp. Sharp dress pants, sharp blue-collared shirt topped off with a necktie saluting America. For decades, Joe wears patriotic neckties to honor America.
When Joe Zeller was in his prime he was the Joe Frazier of the Lehigh Valley political scene. Smokin’ Joe Frazier brawls and keeps coming at his opponents and takes a pounding doing it, but usually bludgeons opponents into submission. Political Joe Zeller is also a fighter. Joe is opinionated and Joe is on the go. Today, registering 100 years on this planet, Joe is still a fighter, still opinionated but not quite as much on the go.
Emmaus residents who were around then or know history know Joe Zeller. Joe serves as borough councilman from 1961 though 1965. .He gets the notion to go into municipal government for a simple reason: The people running things are pretty clueless. Joe can do better.
“The government had a lot of people who didn’t know what they were doing,” Joe says in retrospect. “There were a lot of green guys who were not educated very well.”
Joe whips them into shape and in 1965 decides to get a promotion. He runs for mayor of Emmaus and wins.
“I was trying to make sure they did things properly,” he says with zeal. “I was trying to keep them from throwing the money away. ... I made sure things were run properly.”
Joe takes a moment to think and adds one more thing:
“... I didn’t fool around.”
For his combative history, Joe has two other lesser-known traits. One, he understands that in politics, and in life, you have to get along with people.
“I like people. You get things done for them and they like you,” he says.
He also recognizes you can think what you want, but once in a while you can look at it the other person’s way.
“I told these guys in Emmaus, ‘We got to work together,’” he says.
Joe wasn’t exactly “green” when he became borough councilman. He knew the issues and knew the people. Years before, he had organized and was president of the Emmaus Taxpayers Association (1954 - 1960).
“I had to make sure things were run properly,” Joe says of his reason for forming the organization.
He also understands fighting. Joe sees things that raise the hair on his neck when he joins the United States Navy and serves for almost four years during World War II as a chief aviation electrician on the USS Ranger CV-4 Carrier. He later serves in the Korean War for another two years.
This was not a vacation. Joe wasn’t peeling potatoes.
“It wasn’t easy, let me tell you,” Joe recalls of his tour of duties. “I did whatever I was told. ... It was combat.”
State of Promotion
Even though he was a successful electrician by trade and was heavily involved with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers No. 375, by 1970 Joe decides a bigger political career could be in his future.
Joe says the heck with it. I’m running for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. I’m going to serve the constituents of the 134th district in Lehigh County.
Joe serves five consecutive terms in the legislature. He gets along with lot of people, but gets in arguments with others. That’s politics. He serves on the Agricultural, Local Government, Law and Justice, Ways and Mean and Military and Veterans Affairs committees.
Some people like Joe. Some don’t. He takes it as it comes.
But when you get down to it, for 10 years Joe serves his constituents. Remember he likes people. They call him on the phone, he calls them. Shoots the breeze. Helps them out. Joe listens and then tries to do something about it.
“There’s not much more to it than that,” Joe says.
Yes, Joe says, there’s not much more to it than that.
In 1980 Joe decides he’s carried the water long enough. It’s time to let someone else get in there. It’s time to do something else. He decides not to run for re-election.
Joe retires in 1982. Well, not really retire. Joe is busy as ever. He’s active in so many organizations and committees it makes your head spin. Even during his political days he always found time to be with the people and be involved with what he thinks matter.
He organizes the Emmaus Flag Day Association in 1969 and serves for a decade as president. He was president of the Allentown Flag Day Association. He serves as merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts for more than a half century and serves on the organizing committee for Big Brothers in Lehigh County.
Joe holds membership in veterans groups and spends years promoting love and patriotism of the United States. He’s a member of the national, Pennsylvania and Seipstown Granges for more than 45 years, assisting the agricultural and rural areas. He’s a member of the Lehigh Valley Beekeepers Association, Lehigh County Historical Society and Weisenberg-Lowhill Township Historical Society. There are many others.
Joe continues to be an advocate for veterans, senior citizens, agriculture, the Boy Scouts and the right to bear arms.
Joe’s turning 100. What does it mean?
“Well,” he says after a moment. “I take it in stride.”
Just like he does when he’s in the Big One, World War II. When he was running Emmaus. Helping to run the Commonwealth. Leading organizations he thinks matter.
Joe hasn’t changed much from when he was a lad of 14, promoting boxing matches with his brother, Frank, for a mobster who lives in Chicago and goes by the name of Alphonse Gabriel Capone.
“I didn’t fool around,” Joseph Zeller says.