URBANA — Friends, family, former students and parishioners are remembering David Zola as a holy man who dedicated his life to helping other people grow closer to God.
Mr. Zola, 71, a professor at the University of Illinois and husband of Unit 4 Superintendent Susan Zola, was memorialized Monday in the same church where he baptized children and assisted at Mass.
The Rev. Luke Spannagel, pastor at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Urbana, described the deacon who died on Friday as a joyful man who never stopped smiling.
"David Zola would sit in his scooter before every service and greet people coming in," Spannagel said. "And he would fist-bump the kids, welcome the adults and smile."
Spannagel remembered the time Mr. Zola was preaching a homily when his cellphone rang.
"He answered it, and he said it was God who had called him," he said. "They talked for a minute before he said he needed to go, so he could preach his homily.
"We found out later that Susan, his wife, had made the call to make it work. That was pretty fun."
Stan Yanchus, one of Mr. Zola's former educational psychology students in 1982, said the professor went on to become his mentor in life.
"He continued to be my mentor when I went on to become a teacher at Centennial High School," Yanchus said. "He may have been the most influential person in my life and my career. He inspired me to do service work. More than that, he became a good friend."
Others shared similar stories.
"We had a very special bond," said Courtney Kneer, 18, who stood by the deacon's side for years as an altar server at St. Pat's. "He was always my go-to person. He was a great guy. I became an altar server when I was in the fifth grade, and, if anybody ever needed something, he would give me a glance, and I was there for him. I miss him already."
"Our daughter died two-and-a-half years ago," said St. Patrick's parishioner Paul Anderson. "Through our grief, David became a lot closer to us. Every time we saw him, he motioned us to come over to give us a hug and a kiss on the cheek."
Former parishioner Pat Sheehan helped the Zolas put together their nursery before their first daughter was born.
"David was so kind and considerate. He was loving and prayerful," Sheehan said. "He and Susan complemented each other in their lives and careers. He loved teaching most of all."
"When he assisted at Mass, his face would glow," said parishioner Minette Sternke. "When he baptized someone, you could see the joy in his face."
"One time, a mother came who needed her children baptized, and David made it happen," said Jon McCoy, St. Pat's director of religious education. "Baptizing children was one of his favorite things to do."
Former St. Pat's Pastor George Remm remembered Mr. Zola for his work as director of youth.
"He was a very good religious education teacher and very faithful man," Remm said. "I was impressed with how he and Susan raised their family. His illness and handicaps did not deter him from doing work for people and caring for them."
In a May News-Gazette profile, Mr. Zola said serving Mass as a 10-year-old in Lenox, Mass., helped him fall in love with God and the Catholic Church.
When he arrived in Champaign-Urbana in 1978 to become an assistant research professor at the UI, he also joined St. Patrick's Parish.
Within a few years, he was named director of St. Pat's religious education program.
Through that work, he met a young woman named Susan Staats, who joined him as part of the church's ministry to youth. They were married in 1989.
In May 2012, Mr. Zola was ordained a permanent deacon.
As the father of a deaf child, Mr. Zola specialized in a ministry for people with special needs at St. Pat's.
He continued his service as a deacon for the rest of his life.