Al Zaba, a life built on giving & seeing opportunity

Last Sunday, thousands of Barrie residents crowded the downtown cenotaph. They applauded veterans, old and young. They applauded the cadets who will come after us. They applauded the Silver Cross Mother. They applauded Al Zaba who took the salute as the memorial services came to a close.

Thirty six hours later, Al Zaba was gone, as if the honour of taking the salute, of representing those who served in war, was the final cap on a military career that involved food and brought him to work and finally rest in Barrie.

Al’s death, at age 83, is still a mystery for his family. After 15 hours in RVH Emerge, he turned to his daughter Heather who accompanied him finally to a bed on the third floor, and gave her a final fatherly ‘command.’ “You better call the family, Heather.  I’m not going to make it.” And this Wolsley, SK farm boy who built his successful family business in Barrie, left this earth, making his final address change.

With no warning, and no reason (yet) Al and Marion Zaba’s eight kids are stunned by their father’s death. A ninth child, Robert, was killed by a drunk driver at Gowan St and Essa Rd in 1988.

Al’s military life involved cooking. He was a cook, then an instructor for food services in the military, ending his career at Base Borden. He decided to start his own business, selling meat… freezer orders, they were called in the 60’s. In 1964 he bought the Angus food store and A&M Market was born, A for Al and M for Marion, at the corner of Hwy 90 and County Rd 10.

Marion, stalwart companion, predeceased Al by a number of years. Also a Saskatchewan farm girl, they met at an Armed Forces dance and that was that!

Al and Marion grew the Angus store and then sold it in 1984 when Al decided to open A&M on Essa Rd near Gowan St (now occupied by C’est La Vie banquet hall); he bought the Red & White store from the Fleetham family. Just steps away from Christie’s IGA and Norman’s Allandale Hardware, the little community had a vibrant economic hub and Al was at the centre of it.

He was the first south end developer in Barrie when he bought the Fox Farm and built the A&M Plaza in the country at the corner of Burton AV and Huronia Rd… twice! Near completion, it was levelled by the May, 1985 tornado, and Al began again and ultimately moved A&M Foods down to a spacious store as he rented the rest of the plaza out to other small business owners.

Further south end development, big box store food/drug competition took Al into retirement a few years ago with closing of A&M and selling of the plaza.

Retirement?  Well, not really.  Al Zaba had a lifelong interest in helping others.  As a food store owner he was generous to the soup kitchens, Out of the Cold, Youth Haven, and other programs feeding the needy.  He had a huge commitment to helping others, a lesson emphasized by his immigrant father, who came to Canada from Poland.  “When my grandpa came from Poland, he remembered that someone gave him a sandwich and a bowl of soup. My grandpa always said that you always give. And Dad always did,” said Heather.

Al was a strength behind the Salvation Army. He helped the people at Elizabeth Fry. He was very connected to his A&M customers. He knew them, he greeted them, he cared about them. Whether people shopped weekly or monthly, he remembered them. He was a keen and respected member of the Veterans’ and the Kiwanis clubs of Barrie. He worked around his house, he worked with the Salvation Army. He spearheaded a drive to restore the cenotaph monument, cleaning the stone and repainting all the names engraved there.

“There was always a project and he would always help,” says Heather.

Eight of the nine Zaba children have a hole in their hearts this week.  Leslie, John, Heather, Murray, Stephen, Marian, Edward and Allan fulfilled their mother’s wish for a large family. But for one Zaba working on a western oil rig, all the others are around Barrie and have given Al 17 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. Al’s wife of 12 years, Deannie, shares that hole in their heart. It’s a great legacy from a guy whose first job was in a Weston Bread plant in the prairies!

His children and grandchildren are making family arrangements to hold a memorial service at St George’s Anglican Church. Watch the service notices for a future date.

Al believed in hard work, in education, in respecting people around you, in feeling and expressing happiness and in being kind to others. What a terrific set of values on which to build a life!

Thanks, Al.