Tim Klotz, 14, a freshman at Providence Catholic High School and a member of Boy Scout Troop 383, led efforts to create a memorial garden dedicated to Zinn, an Olympian and the first Orland Park resident killed while serving in Vietnam.
Klotz's family has a long history in Orland Park — his grandfather was a former mayor — but even he hadn't heard of Zinn until two years ago.
To celebrate the village's 120th anniversary, Klotz' troop created a geocaching challenge where participants could visit Orland Park landmarks and answer questions to learn more about local history. One of the landmarks was a rock with a plaque dedicated to Zinn. It offered few details — that Zinn was a United States Military Academy at West Point graduate and a two-time Olympian, and that he died in Vietnam — but Klotz said it stuck with him.
When it came time to choose a project that would help him reach the Boy Scouts' highest rank, he settled on the idea of a memorial garden.
"This guy has an amazing record, and he deserves more," Klotz said Saturday at a ceremony dedicating the memorial outside the Village of Orland Park Veterans Center at 15045 West Ave.
Klotz worked with his troop, Orland Park's Recreation and Parks Department and the village's Veterans Commission for six months to plan the project, then aided by about 20 volunteers spent eight hours in the hot sun building a small circular plaza and garden near the vets' center flagpoles.
"All it took was for me to say he was a veteran, he was killed in action and he was an Olympian," he said. "People started volunteering left and right. It was amazing."
He also reached out to Zinn's family and West Point classmates to learn more about his life.
"My email was blowing up with messages from people who knew him," Klotz said. "The legacy this guy left behind, and the friendships, especially since he died so young, was incredible."
Zinn's family moved to Orland Park in 1953. He graduated from Sandburg High School four years later, having been an honor roll student and standout athlete. He went on become a two-time Olympic racewalker in the 1964 Games, taking sixth in the 20-kilometer walk. He was the first West Point cadet to represent his country on the U.S. Olympic Team, said his brother, Jerry Zinn.
Siblings and West Point classmates who attended the dedication ceremony recalled both his "pretty wild" sense of humor and his determination.
"Right before we graduated, we were able to select our branch of service and a location of our first assignment," said retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. James J. McQuillen, Zinn's West Point classmate. "Ron chose the infantry and requested assignment to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Okinawa. He could have selected a less dangerous branch and assignment, but he wanted to lead troops and he always liked a challenge."
He was killed in Vietnam on July 7, 1965, about two months after he deployed, while trying to save his platoon leader, his brother said. He was 26 and had married just six months before.
"He died for a friend, died for his country, and if it was today, I'm sure he would do it all over," said Jerry Zinn. "In his 26 years, he did a lot more than a lot of people will do in their lifetime."
Klotz said he thought Zinn's story deserved to be better known, so the garden includes a sign with photos and a brief biography in addition to the rock and plaque that initially sparked Klotz's interest.
"This is small-town America doing a thing a lot of people think is a thing of the past: a Boy Scout building a memorial to a long-forgotten soldier from our hometown," said Mayor Dan McLaughlin. "As mayor, I couldn't be prouder to call Zinn one of our own, and I couldn't be prouder of Tim Klotz, who went above and beyond to make this day special for Zinn's family and for Orland Park."