Longtime surgeon, advocate and volunteer Ralph Keenan Zech died at home Jan. 22, 2015.
He was born Oct. 1, 1925, to Raymond and Helen Zech in Seattle, as he liked to tell it, “just as the Great Empire silk train was pulling out of the King Street Station heading for Chicago.”
Like those trains, designed to travel with speed to protect their precious cargo, Dr. Zech packed as much as he could into life at a pretty good clip.
“We all have lost a great doctor, a great citizen and a dear friend,” said Jim Puttman, his friend of 49 years. “Dr. Zech left his mark on Enumclaw, in his church and community – few could replace him. We will all miss him, but never forget him.”
Zech was a graduate of Seattle’s Lakeside High School, where he was honored as a 70-year alumnus. He went on to graduate from Seattle University, earned his medical degree at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and completed his surgical residency at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
When the opportunity arose, Zech embraced military service. He served as a lieutenant commander, Medical Corps officer, in the U.S. Navy, and was a veteran of the Korean conflict, where he survived a plane crash in the Bering Sea.
As a well-respected surgeon in Seattle, he began private practice around 1957, the same year he was brought on as surgeon and human rights and dignity advocate at Rainier School in Buckley, where he received presidential recognition for his 50 years of service.
He began serving Enumclaw a few years later and made the move with his family permanent in 1967.
He felt strongly that physicians should be active in their community and led by example, immersing himself in his work and the community.
“Dr. Zech surely demonstrated to me what it means to go through life caring about others, being truly passionate and dedicated to a cause; and what it means and why it is important to be active in and support your own community,” said Buckley Fire Chief Alan Predmore, who sat with him on the Rainier Foothills Wellness Foundation. Zech was one of the Foundation’s first presidents and remained an active board member, serving as secretary at the time of his passing.
“While Dr. Zech is known by many; not as many know of all his work behind the scenes in his life of caring for others,” Predmore continued. “Whether through his philanthropic support of the Foundation, the hospital – or other community causes; or his time spent reviewing medical practices in our community in an effort to improve healthcare; or the many hours he devoted to the residents at Rainier School advocating for their well-being. Dr. Zech was what it means to be a member of the community.”
Zech was a charter member and past president of the Enumclaw Rotary Club and longtime “spin doctor” of their weekly newsletter. He was recipient of the club’s Gear of the Year award for extraordinary service to others, and, until he became ill, he had 44 years of perfect meeting attendance.
For more than 60 years, he was a member of the King County Medical Society and the Washington State Medical Association. He devoted more than 50 years as a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons and to the Northwest Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons. He could be found manning the Enumclaw Chamber of Commerce help desk and was honored for 25 years of service there. He sat on the city of Enumclaw’s Cemetery Board for more than 40 years and was instrumental in petitioning for its rhododendron border. He served the Enumclaw hospital under its various names. In addition to his duties as surgeon, he served as chief of staff, sat on the Quality Control Committee and was chief of surgery when he retired in 1985.
After retirement, Zech remained active at the hospital. He and his wife Bette supported the construction of St. Elizabeth Hospital by sponsoring the creation of the surgery department, which he helped establish, and the chapel.
A devout Catholic, he dedicated his time to Enumclaw’s Sacred Heart Parish where he served as parish council president and an usher. He was a member of the building committee, Knights of Columbus and an instigator in the once popular salad luncheon. An avid golfer, he was haunted by the ace missed by an inch and found pleasure surveying his acreage from his tractor seat.
He was a board member of Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle; member, Creighton Medical School and Seattle University alumni associations; and served as the Seattle Fire Department’s physician for several years.
Zech may be best known for his artful salesmanship for worthy causes – hawking Campfire mints, Girl Scout cookies, Rotary ducks, Christmas trees, breakfast tickets or any raffle of items to raise money for something close to his heart.
He is survived by his wife of more than 65 years, Helen (Bette); children: Ralph, Edward, Jean (Manhart), Joan (Gerth), Thomas, Charles, and Katherine (Kioshi); 15 grandchildren; four great-grandchildren, and his brother Paul. He was preceded in death by his brother, Raymond, and daughter, Theresa.
A funeral mass is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Sacred Heart Church in Enumclaw with burial at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery. The family suggests donations to the Rainier Foothills Wellness Foundation.