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Zahn Memorial Coming Up At Balmoral

Published: April 13, 2015 10:51 am ET

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On Saturday, April 18, the 14th annual Zahn Purple Heart Memorial will be raced at Balmoral Park and guests from at least four states will be present.

The story begins on April 2, 1922 when a baby boy named Harold was born in Chicago. The lad grew up a child of the depression and a bit of a prankster as he and his buddies would place garter snakes in their schoolteacher’s desk drawers, play hooky from Lane Tech to go to Riverview Park, and sneak into movie houses by sliding down the coal chutes. As he approached his 20th year, the son of a WWI aviator entered the army as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne and he served in Europe, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and earning a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. It was thought that his two frozen feet might result in their loss, but fortunately they were saved but the cause of grief for years to come.

After the war, Harold returned to Illinois and married his childhood sweetheart, Marian, and the two raised four children in the suburbs of Chicago. Harold’s love of country was evident in his active participation in the Military Order of The Purple Heart and he became a commander of the local chapter located in South Chicago Heights. MOPH became his passion and his patriotism was instilled upon his kids, Dale, Gary, Judy and Lori. If there was a parade, he was in it. If there was a service for Veterans, he was there, but his other passion was a love of harness racing, as a fan.

He and his MOPH buddies would frequently leave their chapter meetings and head over to Washington Park, in Homewood, Illinois to catch the last few races. As time went on, he’d have his oldest son, Dale, tag along with him and together the well-bonded father/son duo would visit the Chicagoland harness tracks regularly. After the fire that destroyed Washington Park, Balmoral Park in Crete became the track of choice, as it was only 15 minutes from the family home. Both Harold and Dale were there when Balmoral first turned on the lights back in the late 1960s, and as Harold grew older and ultimately retired from work at Chicago’s Federal Reserve Bank, his regular almost daily place for fun and relaxation was in the second floor clubhouse at Balmoral. In fact, less than one week before his death at the age of 79 in February, 2002, Harold was there in his usual perch, hot black coffee on one side, ashtray and smokes on the other and his racing programs in the middle.

Shortly after his funeral that was one day after Dale’s birthday, the subject of how he could be best remembered was a topic of discussion between Dale and his wife, LaVonne, whom Harold held in the highest regard. The answer quickly became a memorial race with a blanket presentation in the winner’s circle at Balmoral Park. It was initially thought to be a one-time remembrance with a small group of family and friends present. On that particular night, driver Tony Morgan, one of Harold’s favourites, won the race and a driver’s whip autographed by many of the top drivers in Chicago was presented to the family. The whip is displayed to this day on the wall in Dale’s office. After its first run, Dale and LaVonne decided to do it again, and again, each year, and rather than just recognize Harold to expand the event and its meaning to say ‘thank you’ and recognize all Purple Heart Veterans throughout the land (Harold would want it that way). It is not known how long the event can continue to be hosted, but as long as the family can, it will. For the past several years, members of the MOPH have been present and have displayed the flags during the National Anthem performed ‘live’ in the winner’s circle. This year, there will be more MOPH members and their guests than ever before in attendance.

So this year, for the 14th consecutive year, the Zahn Purple Heart Memorial will be raced at Balmoral, on Saturday, April 18, and guests from at least four states will be present. Everyone involved with the memorial races like to think Harold will be there in spirit as he watches the proceedings from the ‘great racetrack in the sky.’

(With files from Dale Zahn)

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