A Spirit to Volunteer 19

Missoula’s Patricia Zapp shares her passion for people and performing.

Patricia Zapp got her first surprise party this year. It was for her 90th birthday. This day celebrated not just her birth but also the giving spirit and tireless community involvement of a woman who has been an asset to Missoula since she settled here in 1992. And what a party it was! A written proclamation was issued announcing that Patricia’s life “exemplifies the highest degree of caring, compassion, dedication and service,” and that she is “making Missoula a better place to live.” Mayor Engen was there and decreed the date—April 12, 2015—“Patricia Zapp Day.”

“And you know what I did?” Patricia said. “I reached up and gave him a big kiss! And he’s big!”

Patricia herself does not cast an imposing figure at barely over five feet tall, but packed into that tiny frame is a woman full of life, wonder and a desire to make herself and the world around her a better place. Patricia is a volunteering machine, giving her time to a staggering array of local non-profits and events, and there has never seemed to be a point in Patricia’s life when she has slowed down.

“There are always opportunities,” she says. “This is what I tell young people: Take advantage of every opportunity that you have.”

And so, on Wednesday mornings you will find her at Missoula Aging Services, and then she is on to man the front desk at St. Patrick Hospital in the afternoon. She lends her mezzo-soprano to the Missoula Symphony Chorale. Law and pharmaceutical students at the university play through scenarios with her to learn how to better work with seniors. Reading for the sight impaired, lending her time to Project Homeless Connect, helping at her great-grandchildren’s school. The list goes on and on.

Patricia’s most active role is played at Missoula Aging Services, where she has donated more than 3,200 hours to the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP. RSVP places adults over the age of 55 in volunteer positions that best suit their talents. Patricia says she sees value in giving seniors an opportunity to use their skills.

RSVP Volunteer Coordinator Helen Pohlman gushes over Patricia’s endless contributions to both this program and to the community: “Patty’s volunteerism exemplifies the highest degree of caring, compassion, dedication and service. Her efforts have a huge impact benefitting many Missoula non-profit services and agencies.”

Patricia saw the benefits of what she calls “stick-to-it-ness” early on when her father died at age 44. Her mother found herself with six children in the middle of the Great Depression. “We thank God for FDR when he started the employment service,” says Patricia. Her mother found work as an interviewer and placement officer with the employment service and kept the family together. “She was a good role model for strong women.”

And Patricia has a strong spirit. Just ask her about her journey to wed her husband, Warren, at the tail end of World War II. Warren wanted to wait to marry as he was preparing to be shipped to Japan, but then Patricia got a call. “‘I’ve changed my mind,’ he said to me.” What followed is a story vividly told by Patricia with scenes of her 20-year-old self traveling alone by train from Washington D.C. to Charleston, S.C., and having to catch a ride from strangers into town after finding herself at a depot far from the city center. “What do you think of a person that does that?” says Patricia. “Now you’re going to see how I stick to it.”

Part of that “sticking to it” has been demonstrated through Patricia’s desire to never stop learning. The importance of education was drilled into her by her mother, and despite numerous roadblocks thrown up over the years from having to help her mother support the family to her husband’s many job transfers to raising five children, Patricia has never stopped learning.

“I was learning all the time,” says Patricia. She would take two courses back-to-back on Tuesdays and Thursdays while her children were in school. “Every place we moved, that was the pattern. I put a lot of energy into learning.”

After years of hard work, she received her bachelor’s degree in theater in her 40s and then her master’s in counseling. “And I’m still going to school,” she says.

She takes full advantage of classes—theology, philosophy, art, history and, of course, Shakespeare, where she is quick to raise her hand if the professor is looking for someone to read a scene—offered through the MOLLI program. “Anything that makes you think and question” is what draws Patricia in. She can’t remember how may courses she has taken with Professor Mehrdad Kia who calls Patricia “one of the most attentive, diligent, and awe-inspiring students I have had in the past 25 years at the University of Montana. Her commitment to learning and her genuine interest in educating herself about various international and global issues is truly exemplary.”

It is hard to pinpoint the beginning of Patricia’s love of volunteering but the death of her beloved Warren after 40 years of marriage had a profound effect on her. “I didn’t like to see people dying alone,” she says. She felt called to be a hospital chaplain and received training in San Antonio, Texas. Never one to do anything halfway, Patricia made history by becoming the first lay female Catholic chaplain assigned to a U.S. military hospital at Brooke Army Medical Center.

The love of family and a desire to see all four seasons brought Patricia to Missoula from Texas. “My daughter Mary Louise said, ‘Mom, you’d love it.’ It was such a small town, I thought it was the jumping off place of the earth. But I found out differently and it was grand.”

Since moving to Missoula, Patricia has taken her volunteerism global. She joined the Peace Corps and celebrated her 70th birthday 
in Nepal, where she would have served the full two-year term if a bad case of pneumonia hadn’t gotten in the way.

While volunteering takes up much of her time, Patricia has always kept theater a big part of her life. She appeared in a short film made for a graduate student’s thesis, which led to her “discovery” by director Guy Baker who flew her and Mary Louise to Portland to shoot the 2014 short film Teal’s Legacy.

Today, you will find Patricia behind the scenes at the Missoula Children’s Theatre, starring in a commercial for Missoula Aging Services, volunteering at church, deciding on her next MOLLI course, and speed walking in the Rattlesnake to stay healthy.

Patricia’s advice to anyone, especially seniors, looking to live a long, happy life is to “find something you have a passion for. Get interested in other people.” The citizens of Missoula are very lucky that Patricia has taken an interest in them.