John Alfred Zempel, 68, of Topeka, Kansas, tragically passed away on March 21, 2022. He was my older brother.
John was captivated and enthralled by space. If he could have found a way to be on a space shuttle, that would have been his dream. My very first memories were of my big brother coming home from college. He was 15 years older than me. I was probably about three years old… and we would watch Sesame Street and Star Trek together and make the Starship Enterprise on my LiteBrite.
To honor my brother’s love of science, space, and forging new frontiers, some of John’s ashes will be aboard a rocket carrying him to deep space. Star Trek First Family Embarks on Final, Infinite Journey on a Rocket Named Vulcan (celestis.com). I know he’d be giddy knowing he’ll finally be among the stars he loved, part of creation itself.
John Zempel’s life was cut short as a result of the unstable actions of another. While his physical ending was tragic, John lived a life filled with love, compassion, patience, devotion, and kindness. This is his legacy.
John was born on April 22, 1953, on what has become known as Earth Day. Such a fitting birthday for a man committed to the beauty of our planet. John was the eldest child of Ellen Louise (Gore) and Delmar Bruno Zempel. Both Ellen and Delmar preceded John in their passing.
My memories of my brother growing up are limited. I do know that he loved science, specifically chemistry and physics, and singing as well. He fell in love with photography and capturing the beauty of life through his images, whether it was an old barn weathered by the elements or the fragility of the flowers and birds he came across in his travels.
John was an active member of the Audubon Society, he worked to preserve natural habitats, participated in bird counts, and served in various board and leadership capacities. His love of birding took him to many destinations, such as Alaska, Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, and Peru. John’s love of nature showed up in his later years when he became a docent at the Topeka Zoo. He loved animals and shared his knowledge and enthusiasm for conservation with others.
John obtained his B.S. degree from Central Michigan University and continued his passion for research at Kansas University, earning a Ph.D. in Toxicology and Pharmacology.
He was a beloved high school teacher at Saint Benedict at Auburndale (SBA) High School. He was affectionately known as “Dr. Z” by his students, who remember him as one of their favorite teachers. His students appreciated his commitment to their learning and education, which went far beyond chemistry and physics. Colleagues loved his enthusiasm and his willingness to always collaborate, going above and beyond the expected.
John spent his days working to restore his yard to a natural habitat for native species. John was an active member of the Holton Ham Radio Club, working to educate other ham radio enthusiasts. He loved reaching out and contacting people all over the world and would share his stories with me.
Recently, John rekindled his love for photography and was starting to photograph the night sky and the Milky Way. His last posted picture was of Teter Rock, Kansas. I know he will feel honored by having his ashes sent to space.
John is survived by his little sister Audrey L. White (San Jose, California), his beloved nephew, Phillip D. White (San Jose, California), and his cherished niece, Heather L. White (Warwick, Rhode Island). John is also survived and loved by many cousins in Michigan, Texas, Colorado, and beyond.
The first memorial will be held in Topeka, Kansas, on his birthday, Friday, April 22, 2022, Earth Day. Details are still being finalized. Please continue to check John’s Facebook memorial page (John Zempel | Facebook), or reach out to Audrey (Audrey Zempel White Facebook Messenger) for details. Dates are still pending for the memorials in Texas and Tennessee in the coming months.
May we all remember John with love and compassion. May we release any anger and pain, knowing that Love is All there is. Live life with joy and wonder. Show kindness and generosity. Let each of us carry our love for John in how we live our lives every day.
May Peace Prevail.