Wellsville, NY - Nora Colmers Zinner, 100, passed away peacefully in her home on February 18 with her daughter and grandson at her side. Born May 1, 1914, in Vienna, Austria, the daughter of Franz Colmers and Marie Leiner Colmers, Nora whose full name was Eleonore Friederika Klara Elisabeth Gertrud Marie was the goddaughter of her namesake, the exiled Queen (Tsaritsa) Eleonore of Bulgaria.
Nora spent the first eight years of her life in Coburg, Germany, where her father, lovingly known as “Vali,” who had been awarded medals by Tsar Nicholas for his service in the German Red Cross during the Russo-Japanese war, was chief surgeon of the county hospital. She was home schooled with one year spent on the shores of Lake Tegernsee in the Bavarian Alps. By the time she was nine, her family moved to Munich, Germany, where she was enrolled in a private school and then later attended Gymnasium, receiving an accelerated post-secondary education. In 1933, after graduating, she went to England as an exchange student, perfecting her English and learning shorthand. In the fall of 1934, Nora moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where she again was a university exchange student. She once wrote, “I flunked the final, but got 3rd prize in a slalom ski race!” Nora learned stenotyping in Geneva enabling her to secure a part time job working for journalists affiliated with the League of Nations who needed her translations for articles intended for newspapers in the Balkans and Scandinavia. IBM’s CEO, Thomas J. Watson, learning about her work, approached her and asked if she could use the stenotype machine to write German. Without hesitation, she assured him she could and was hired on the spot. While in Geneva, Nora did independent writing and interviewing when not kayaking down the Rhine or skiing at Megève with friends, including Émile Allais, later known as the daring French Olympic champion credited for modern day skiing with skis parallel.
Nora returned to Munich in the fall of 1936 and worked at the Austrian Consulate while waiting for her emigration visa to the United States. She traveled to New York City by boat in May 1937 and with her shorthand and translating skills was hired by an export and import company. In 1938, she married Kurt Zinner, a cardiologist, bought a Buick for $65 and drove West. The car broke down in Wellsville, New York, where the couple not only found a mechanic but a need for a physician.
Nora gave birth to two children, Peter, born in 1940 and Barbi, born in 1942. When the children were young, Nora’s focus was inside the home, but she nevertheless managed to earn her pilot’s license on a single engine Cessna, started the Wing Scouts as part of the National Girl Scouts for young woman interested in flying, and began an active member of the Hemlock Twig for Jones Memorial Hospital with which she was involved until her death. In addition, Nora joined groups of artists painting still lives and landscapes. Although her parents wouldn’t allow her to go to art school, Nora loved drawing and painting even as a child. Exceptionally talented, she would often credit time spent under the tutelage of Clara Katherine Nelson of Alfred University for enhancing her artistic skills. Nora’s paintings, cherished possessions of her friends and collectors, almost always were awarded ribbons in juried exhibitions, even as recently as last year.
An avid reader since she was a child, Nora worked at David A. Howe Public Library in the 1950s in order to support her family while she attended Alfred University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in 1960 and then her Masters in Teaching from Alfred University, acquiring supplemental credits from Middlebury College. Nora was responsible for introducing German classes to Wellsville High School and from 1960 until 1978, taught German and French and even a class in English when called upon. Students not only benefited from Nora’s passion for languages and her love of teaching, but were exposed to her depth of knowledge whether European history, mythology, literature, music or Latin derivatives. A true linguist, she was always a stickler for correct grammar and expected language to be treated with respect. Her love for words brought her great joy even in the last weeks of her life when she would guide her grandson in daily German lessons followed by mutually solving (without internet help) the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle.
Throughout her long life, Nora (known as “Moma” to her family) mentored and inspired many. She was especially fond of teenagers and young people. Recipients of her wisdom would find that her natural curiosity and excitement about life were as valuable as her wise advice. Nora called herself a “political animal.” She voted in every election, never missed a State of the Union address and was a fan of PBS News Hour and the Sunday political roundtables. Because Nora had dreamed of being a journalist herself, she took special pride in her grandson’s wide travels and success as an international journalist and documentary filmmaker. When her daughter, Barbi, was a teenager, Nora would encourage her to venture away from Wellsville to discover “the big world waiting out there.” In recent months, history repeated itself as she encouraged her granddaughter, Tate, to seek new adventures upon graduating from college. Nora was especially proud of her son Peter, delighting in his kindness, thoughtfulness and positive outlook on life despite his challenges. She adored his partner, Joann, and took great comfort in knowing they were so happy.
As an avid skier, Nora joined Wellsville veterans who were part of the 10th Mountain Division as they jury-rigged an old Ford engine to power a rope tow turning the backside of Norton Hill into a ski slope. When Swain Resort opened, she would gather ski gear and head out with Barbi and her friends, many who still credit her with introducing them to skiing. Nora skied into her early 80s and after retirement added golf to the sports she enjoyed. Always interested in languages, Nora hosted Spanish classes in her home and although in her 80s and 90s her ear was sharp and her memory keen. In these later years she also began actively playing bridge, a game her father taught her well over three-quarters of a century earlier. She not only enjoyed the challenge of the game, she loved the company especially during daylong “Marathon” bridge tournaments. Some friends reported she soundly beat them a few days before she died.
Despite her dismay over the current political bickering and horrors of conflicts with their accompanying senseless deaths and destruction, she was overtly optimistic about the world in general, insisting, “Things will get better.” Although she sometimes would lament that she had “outlived my time,” she checked her email every day and would insist on “Googling” anything she did not know. When hearing about new technology, she would laugh and shake her head in amazement, noting that the science fiction she had loved as a child had become a reality.
Nora enjoyed living in Wellsville. She remarked often about the beauty of the hillsides changing with each season. When others complained about this past year’s long winter, she would exclaim, “I love the snow!” She was thrilled when the cardinals appeared at her bird feeder and equally excited when she could harvest tomatoes growing on her deck or her favorite sunflowers bloomed in late summer. From the time she was a pilot, Nora was fascinated by the weather. She would keep daily track of barometer readings and temperature fluctuations. By observing cloud formations, she predicted rain and storm fronts more accurately than the weatherman.
When she could, Nora loved to travel, visiting in the last half-century Germany, Yugoslavia, Greece, New Zealand, Australia, Kenya and Panama. Although her interests were indisputably global, her attention was more often than not directed on what was happening in the life of the person with whom she was talking. Always an attentive listener, she’d welcome newcomers as readily as old friends and her home was filled with people of all ages. Conversations were always rich in content and even if the world’s problems weren’t solved, they were debated.
It was because of her close and loyal friends and her wonderful team of dedicated caregivers that Nora, even as a centenarian, was able to lead an active life, contributing to the community, enjoying social engagements and the cultural offerings that delighted her so much. Her generous and vibrant spirit, dignified grace, keen perspective and intelligence, empathy and compassion, appreciation of the small things and an unending curiosity and fascination of the unknown have left lasting marks on all who knew her. Her time on this earth, treasured by so many, now serves as a legacy of how to live life to the fullest. Nora embraced Buddhism and believed her energy would live on.
Nora is survived by her son, Peter Zinner and his partner Joann Picone, of Rochester New York, and her daughter, Barbi Reed and her husband, Gary Hornbuckle, of Ketchum, Idaho and Sausalito California; two grandchildren, Reed Lindsay of Ketchum, Idaho and Tate Reed of Flagstaff, Arizona; two nephews, Dr. William F. Colmers of Edmonton, Alberta (wife Eva and children Isabelle and Phillip) and John M. Colmers of Baltimore, Maryland (wife Debra and children Max and Eleanor) and her goddaughter, Margie Gill. Nora was preceded in death by her brother Rudolf A. Colmers, sister Elisabeth “Lisl” Standen, nephew Thomas P. Colmers and her governess “Engi,” Hilda L. Lacher.
During her final hours, Nora asked Barbi and Reed to “thank the town.” She landed in Wellsville by chance, but remained immensely grateful for the tight-knit community of which she became an integral part. Instead of a funeral or memorial service, she wanted people to not shed tears but to celebrate her life with a party. Respecting her wishes, a celebration of Nora’s life will take place at Wellsville Creative Art Center, May 3, at 2:00 PM.
For those who would like to give a gift in her memory, her family respectively requests that you consider the following:
•LDA Life and Learning Services, 1650 South Avenue, Suite 200, Rochester, NY 14620. (Incoming donations will be applied to St. Paul where Nora’s son Peter is a resident.)
•David A. Howe Public Library, 155 North Main Street, Wellsville, NY 14895 (Nora, an avid reader all her life, always had a bookmarked book next to her chair and bed.)
•Genesee Valley Chorus, 53 South St., Belmont, NY 14813 (Nora supported the choir for many years and eagerly anticipated its concerts.)