In the Words of Br. Conrad: Brilliant, Reserved, Dedicated. Bob Zeller has many memories from the early days of Justin and Siena High Schools. Back in 1966, Zeller and his late wife, Inge, convinced their eldest daughter, Cathy, to enroll as a freshman at a brand new girls Catholic high school in town.
“She thought about going to Napa High,” he said. But after a close friend also decided to attend Siena High School, the two joined the Class of 1970. At the time, there were only 120 students enrolled at both schools total. “We thought she might get more personal attention,” Zeller said. “Napa High was a huge school. We preferred the small school and a Catholic school. So we signed her up.”
The Zellers quickly became immersed in the swirl of both Justin and Siena school activities such as football games, fundraisers, dances and other school happenings. “It became the social life of my family,” he said. “We became acquainted with lots of new people. Not only parents, but also people involved in Justin and Siena. We went to all of their events and supported all of them.” Perhaps Zeller treasures those memories all the more because he knows how close it all came to never happening.
Just a few short years after the two schools opened, both Justin and Siena high schools were struggling. “Things changed dramatically,” said Zeller. Enrollment hadn’t yet caught on. Finances looked dim. The Bishop at the time, Bishop Leo Maher, had made it plain that the Diocese of Santa Rosa couldn’t subsidize the schools for much longer. Barring a significant intervention, the fledgling Justin and Siena High Schools would have to close. Without that assistance from the Bishop, “The Brothers and Sisters weren’t financially able to handle it,” he said. Each order was already dealing with other challenges. Vocations were declining, and both groups were facing downsizing of their missions such as hospitals and other schools.
As Zeller recalled it, the school’s two first principals—Br. Bede Van Duren, FSC and Sr. Carol Quinn, OP—were not in favor of closing the schools. “They asked me if I would get together a group of people to help them present a plan for keeping the schools going.” His answer? Yes.
A third generation Napan, and an established attorney with a successful firm downtown and deep community ties, Zeller wasted no time in taking action. Former Justin-Siena faculty member Brother Chris Brady, FSC recalls, “As a respected Napa Valley leader, Bob was at the forefront of providing appropriate counsel and guidance.” Sr. Jeremy Carmody, OP echoed Br. Chris’s sentiments and added, “We could always depend upon Bob to give us excellent advice, as he is a gentleman of vast experience and integrity.” Br. Chris continued, “Bob led by his sterling example of selfless service to the entire Justin-Siena community.”
Meeting with early stakeholders and members of the community, Zeller and his cohorts were pleased to receive a very positive response to those they approached. “There was tremendous support from the Napa community,” —a wide range, it turned out, said Zeller. “It wasn’t just parents. People who were not Catholic, even those without kids in the school, were very interested in having an alternative school in Napa.” Arguably the biggest change from that era was the combination of the two schools into one financially sustainable entity, Justin-Siena High School.
As a founding faculty member at Siena High School who ultimately went on to become Principal during some critical years in the mid to late 70s, Sr. Jeremy knew just how critical things had become and is eternally grateful for Zeller’s leadership. She recalls how he was “present to our every need and was instrumental in the merger. As chair of our Board, he communicated clearly with Bishop Leo Maher and was highly respected by the leadership of the Dominican Sisters and the Christian Brothers.”
Zeller also recommended that the school form a Board of Trustees and a Foundation. “For the foundation, our first goal was raising $1 million, and we achieved that by 1974,” he said. Zeller was named the first president of both the Board of Trustees and Foundation and remained president of the Board of Trustees for seventeen years.
Upon his retirement from the Board and in an act of gratitude, his name was added to the name of a building on the north end of campus. Brother Conrad Kearney, who was quick to say he couldn’t “put into just a ‘few words’ all that could be said about Bob Zeller and what he has done for Justin-Siena.” Brother Conrad recalls, “In 1989 the original Siena administration building, leased to the Napa County Superintendent of Schools for offices, was reclaimed and converted into the Robert H. Zeller Student Service Center—dedicated, November 5, 1989.”
He recalled another key moment in the school’s history – the beginning of a vital partnership with the Gasser Foundation of Napa. Founder Peter Gasser was asked to consider supporting the school, “which he did in spades,” said Zeller. The foundation named Justin-Siena as one of two key beneficiaries of the nonprofit. Today, it provides an annual grant that is used for tuition assistance, staff and curriculum developments, educational technology, and facility and campus improvements.
To recognize Zeller’s commitment to his community—both the larger community of Napa as well as Justin-Siena, he will be honored by the school at the upcoming Gala at Greystone on April 8, 2017, as part of Justin-Siena’s continuing celebration of its 50th Anniversary.
“I think its a really very nice honor, but I really think the people who should be recognized are the Brothers and Sisters and all the people who helped me get the school started and kept it going,” he said modestly. “Becoming acquainted with the wonderful Brothers and Sisters,” was one of the most rewarding experiences, said Zeller. “They are still my close friends. Being able to assist them in keeping the school going is really the thing I’m most pleased about.”
“Bob Zeller is my dear and faithful friend,” says Sr. Jeremy. The camaraderie fostered during those critical years in the school’s history has stood the test of time. Those weeks and months surrounding the merger of the schools had the administration in a start-up mentality. Late-night meetings, following long days debating curriculum and enrollment issues forged lasting relationship and a lot of mutual respect. We are reaping the benefits of that dedication and foresight today.
When considering how Zeller has always remained faithful to Justin-Siena, ushering the school through some challenging times, Br. Chris Brady sums up a sentiment shared by many, “Bob Zeller is one of the real heroes of Justin-Siena. He has always believed in the school: the Brothers; the Sisters; the students; and, most especially the Mission.” And, the school is profoundly grateful.
Zeller said when he looks at Justin-Siena now, “I’m amazed at how much they’ve done,” he said. “It’s operating so well. They seem to have really promoted community involvement. They’ve gone far beyond what we did in financial abilities. They’ve expanded the school activities way beyond anything we were doing. There is an awful lot of going on.”
When asked what he wanted the Justin Siena community to know about his experience with the school, Zeller paused for a moment. “I want them to know the Brothers and Sisters provided such a great education for my children,” he said.
Over the years all of the six Zeller children attended and graduated from Justin- Siena, including Cathy Zeller Erickson ’70
, Debra Zeller Terry ’71
(deceased), Janice Zeller McFarlan ’73
, Robert Zeller, Jr. ’76
, Lisa Zeller Miller ’79
, and Kevin Zeller ’87
Several Zeller grandchildren have also attended the school including Clark Terry ’01
, Graham Terry ’03
(currently the Justin-Siena Instructor of Instrumental Music), and Nicole Zeller ’12
, as well as Scott Erickson ’12
and Zachary Zeller ’14
for a time.
“They’ve all had successful professional and business careers.” Zeller himself is 92 and still works full time at his Napa legal practice – along with daughter Cathy Zeller Erickson.
Zeller had this advice for Justin-Siena’s future leaders: “They have been doing a very good job. Keep up the good work.”
Present day connections come full circle
Justin-Siena instructor of instrumental music, Mr. Graham Terry ‘03, teaches in the very building that bears his grandfather’s name. The building was so named to honor Bob’s years of leadership on the Foundation Board and the Board of Trustees. Graham recently hosted a concert for his students called “Solstice” in Siena Hall, and Bob Zeller was thrilled to attend. The two are pictured above in front of the stage just after the concert.