Helen Joanne Zivalich: Mother of large family was strict, loving

A devout Catholic proud of her Irish descent, Helen Joanne Watters Zivalich passed away July 16 at 85. Her children say she was strict, but loving

A devout Catholic proud of her Irish descent, and the wife of a union organizer, Helen Joanne Watters Zivalich passed away July 16 at the age of 85. Her eight living children remember her as a loving mom who ran a tight ship.

Born the sixth of 10 children in Grimes, Iowa, to a farmer father and a schoolteacher mom, Zivalich decided early to go by her middle name Joanne, because "she liked it better than Helen," said daughter Dr. Jane Zivalich Raitano. "That's the way she was. When she made up her mind about something, that's the way it went."

The Depression hit her large Irish family hard, and when Joanne was 7, the family moved to Brooklyn, where she grew up, then worked in an entry-level job on Wall Street.

She met Tony Zivalich, a union organizer from Chicago, at a Young Christian Workers seminar and dance. "It was love at first sight for him," said son Paul Zivalich. "I think it took a few more looks from Mom."

They married in 1953, and Joanne moved to Chicago, where they had their first three of ultimately nine children.

Theirs was "a marriage to emulate," said Raitano. "They stood together as the most solidified unit I have ever seen, even through difficult times." The couple lost a son, Mark, at the age of 4 to leukemia.

"I never saw them fight," said Paul Zivalich. "The most charming moments I recall is when they would play Sinatra records after dinner and dance in front of the family."

Her husband's work kept them on the move. The family lived in Springfield, Ill.; Kirkwood, Mo.; Atlanta; New Orleans; and, in 1977 they settled in Boca Raton, where Tony Zivalich died in 1992. In 2001, Joanne Zivalich moved to Orlando, where two of her children lived.

Her children remember a stern but loving mother, who valued education. "She had to be strict to keep eight kids in line," said Paul Zivalich, a financial consultant in Orlando. "She took a lot of pride in having a well-mannered family. All of us received college degrees if not advanced degrees."

"She was very, very bright, hard-working and organized," said Raitano, an Orlando physician, who remembers lively, intellectual discussions around the dinner table.

After school, the kids knew they were to come home, do homework and iron before going out to play, recalled Raitano. "We were all expected to be at the dinner table by 6. And you weren't late. The family dinner was sacrosanct. Others could join, but you could not miss."

Raising children in the New South during the 1960s, amid a changing political landscape and the backdrop of the father's involvement in organized labor, provided the basis for daily civics lessons.

Many of these lessons happened when Joanne Zivalich found herself hosting political leaders her husband invited home. "She could always throw something together at the last minute that was nice," said Paul Zivalich.

Joanne Zivalich did volunteer work for the Christian Family Movement, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and attended Mass almost daily. In Orlando she volunteered at the Good Shepherd Catholic School.

But her biggest joys were in hosting family events and visiting her grandchildren. "You never get over being a mom when you do it that well," Raitano said.

Joanne Zivalich is also survived by children Dr. Donna Zivalich, Suzanne Weiss, Maura Pelleteri, Tony Zivalich, Jr., Rita Sampson and Joshua Zivalich; and sister Phyllis Plaus.

mjameson@tribune.com or 407-420-5158407-420-5158

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