Guest Column: In Memoriam to Jay Zahn: Thanks for the Laughs

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jay Zahn, 66, passed away Aug. 28. He retired at the end of 2020 after serving for three decades as Door County treasurer.

“I could have gone a few more years, but I decided I’m going to enjoy life,” he told writer Patty Williamson, who covered his retirement for the Peninsula Pulse. “I’ll continue to be involved with my church and the historical society. I’m a big Packer fan and a season-ticket holder.” (And, though he didn’t mention it, he was also a legendary bridge player.)

Find that story at

See also Jay Zahn’s obituary in this week’s newspaper.

by GREGORY HUMPHREY, Madison, Wisconsin

There are those who cross our journey in life and get placed within the memory bank with one word. When I heard that Jay Zahn of Sturgeon Bay had passed away, one word came easily to mind that best described him: “smiles.” 

The smile was there every day we worked together at a radio station, or later when I paid him visits at his courthouse job as the Door County treasurer. There were health woes or issues of the day that needed attention, but he always had a smile.

The smile and his laughter could be infectious, too. During a short stint as the morning man at WDOR AM-FM, I had about three minutes to fill each morning leading up to the 8 am news from ABC. Jay would be there in the control booth as we bantered about either a headline of the day, some wild play the Milwaukee Brewers had made, or some other topical event. 

I soon learned that with Jay, it was easy to laugh, and because I have, at times, a hard time stopping, it meant looking at some dials or ad copy to be read to divert my attention. But it was impossible to hear his laughter and not join in. I heard from listeners and friends that those few minutes of our chatting hit the spot, as Jay had the real “gift of gab.” We should have had an hour-long talk show!

Jay knew I was a bit lonely in Door County and told me he had the perfect remedy: I needed to join the Jaycees! There were, indeed, a raft of projects they had going on throughout the year with spirited guys who knew how to have a good time. 

The night that Ricky Nelson died (New Year’s Eve 1985), after shutting down the radio station, I found myself at their large party. Jay tried to impress upon me how tasty raw hamburger with sliced onion on rye bread would be – something others were eating. I noted he was not eating one and knew he had to be pimping me – doing so with his smile.

He had worked hard, along with other Jaycees, to bring Jerry Reed to Door County, and I recall that something – I suspect it was weather related – disrupted the show in Sturgeon Bay. Jay was able to sit, however, in a trailer with the singer and movie star for a long time and converse about darn near everything. Reed was probably accustomed to such upsets with performances, but Jay – with his bantering style – surely made the evening move along more comfortably.

Jay enjoyed politics, as did I. He was attending a GOP fundraising dinner where state pols would be in attendance and had an extra ticket. Would I like to attend? Well, sure! As he drove us on a Saturday night to the event, he laughed while telling me that I must really like politics if I would volunteer to sit for two hours to hear my party get rhetorically blasted. 

When in later years I stopped by his Door County treasurer’s office, we traded our thoughts about state Assembly members, or would-be candidates, or the gossip in the statehouse. He enjoyed politics the way it can be viewed, without rancor.

One of the lessons of life is being aware of how lucky we are to have warm recollections and funny memories about the people who make up our lives – even those who are not everyday encounters. I last talked with Jay on the phone years ago when his good friend Keta Steebs died. I wanted to reach out, and our chat lasted a while, with odds and ends being discussed. 

What I noted then and recall now was the ease of the conversation after years of not connecting. It was almost as if Jay had walked into the WDOR radio studio and stood near the microphone to chat and laugh our way to the top of the hour and news time.

Thanks for the smiles, Jay.