Dr. Roger Zehren, of Winona, Minn., joyfully met his Creator and Savior on December 24, 2017, in his home surrounded by his family. He received a difficult diagnosis, but miraculously lived for 31 months through his total faith in God and an unwavering positive attitude. His motto during his illness was: “I’m going to live until I die, and then I’m going to live again!”
Roger is survived by his devoted wife, Peggy J. Kallin; his siblings, Dr. Vincent Zehren, Joan Jacques (Howard), John Zehren (Ruth), Leo Zehren (Janet) and Kate Mueller (Harry); his children, Anne, John (Stacy), Dr. Peter (Kimberly), Stephanie (Scott), David (Maria) and Amy (Brad); and his grandchildren, Kallin, Zoe, Olivia, Nico, Luke, Hailey, Cole, Isabella, Brody, Quinn, Hayden, Hudson and Graham. He leaves behind more than 200 first relatives, nieces and nephews. Roger joined his parents, Leo V. and Agnes C. Zehren; sister, Mary Beth; and Dr. Virginia Zehren, who are already with the Lord.
Dad was born in Clintonville, Wis., on February 22, 1932, the fifth of seven children. Roger was married to Peggy (Kallin) Zehren for 57 years and became engaged to her after only three dates. He said that God brought her to him after much prayer, and she was the highlight of his life. They shared “agape love” – the highest form of selfless, unconditional Christian love and charity. He took great pride in his six children, his 13 grandchildren and their achievements.
Dad went to a one-room elementary school but received his BS from St. Norbert College and earned his DDS (dentistry) from Marquette University. Dad modeled his life around three Jesuit ideals from Marquette: to live one’s life for the greater glory of God, to love and serve, and to strive for excellence. A die-hard Packer fan with encyclopedic knowledge of every facet of Packer history, Dad would also follow Vince Lombardi’s philosophy: God, Family, Football!
Roger was a mature young man who, at the age of eight, learned the art of cheese making from his father, a meticulous, fourth-generation, award-winning cheese maker and businessman. He and his brothers hauled milk every morning and despite the difficult work, had a wonderful time. Dad liked to joke that he was the only person in Wisconsin to hold both a dental and cheese maker license. He was very proud of his cheesehead heritage!
Dr. Zehren practiced dentistry for more than 50 years in Winona and Fountain City. Dad absolutely loved being a dentist and he considered dentistry a vocation (higher calling), not a job. Roger said he was called by God to be a dentist so that he could serve people. Monday morning was his favorite day of the week. He loved his patients and staff and treated them like family and partners, not employees. Dr. Roger mentored and employed 13 young dentists, all of whom became highly successful, including his partners Dr. Tim Thompson and Dr. Mark Greulich. He also mentored and employed more than 200 dental hygienists, assistants, and office personnel whom he treated as friends whom he loved. Patients often commented that his precise and compassionate dentistry was pain-free and lasted a lifetime. Dr. Roger shared his dental gifts by regularly providing free dentistry to those who couldn’t afford it, but he never spoke of it.
When Dad outgrew his small office on Fourth Street, he made a decision to beautify downtown Winona by purchasing the historic Exchange Building. Dad spent over a year lovingly restoring every detail in the building back to its historic grandeur. He and Peg named it “The King’s Mansion” after the Lord, and placed a cross at the top of the building. Mom and Dad quietly donated the lower level for nonprofit meeting spaces such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
Beyond his dental practices, Roger was a leader in organized dentistry in Winona County and the state of Minnesota. He was president of the Dental Society and was a leader in the development and implementation of water fluoridation in Winona that resulted in a 62 percent reduction in cavities. He served on the leadership committee to create a school of dental hygiene and assisting at the Rochester Vocation and Technical School, and he was active at the state level. A lifelong learner and intellectual, Dad took challenging continuing education classes until he was 82. He and his 92-year-old brother, Dr. Vincent, attended their last university class on bacteriology in 2014. His intellectual curiosity was challenged with his membership in the Junto Club, an academic club based on the philosophy of Benjamin Franklin. As an active member for 20 years, many of his papers were based on the moral teachings of the church and his love of American history, for which he also had a genius bank of knowledge. He referred to the members of Junto as his “intellectual cabinet” but even moreso, his teachers and friends.
The foundation of Dad’s life was his and Mom’s deep and active Catholic faith, and their desire to love and serve the Lord (and others) in all that they did. Roger and Peg were members and leaders at St. Mary’s Church for almost 60 years. Roger was named the chairman of the Synod in 1967, which was responsible for bringing the principles of Vatican II to life at local parishes. The Holy Spirit exploded at St. Mary’s and it was changed forever. Dad believed Bible studies and prayer groups could have a deep impact on parishioners and he and several friends created a weekly Bible study. He also led two Bible studies at The Cathedral. These weekly groups changed the lives of many, and the initial Vatican II study group is still meeting today, 50 years later. Roger’s own faith deepened as well and together with Peggy, they helped bring the ecumenical “Better World” to Winona, the foundation of the Charismatic movement here. In the late 1970s, Dad (and Mom) said that the Holy Spirit was leading them to start an Ecumenical prayer group, called the Love of God. Some 30 people of all faiths gathered to worship and pray at Dad’s office. In his later years and until his death, Dad was part of the weekly morning Bible study at St. Mary’s Church that was intellectually challenging and nourishing. The men in his study meant a lot to Dad and his faith deepened because of them.
Dad served on the Parish Council, led “Marriage Encounter” weekends with Mom, was co-chairman of “Renew” (Bible study), and lead the “Unbound” ministry. He started a program and brought in many renowned educational speakers. He and Mom were one of the first lay Eucharist ministers of communion in the Diocese of Winona and he humbly served for 37 years. A champion of Catholic education who believed that it provided a moral compass on living a virtuous life and nourished the “whole person,” he encouraged his six children through a total of 90 years of Catholic education including Cotter High School, college and post-graduate degrees.
Dad (and Mom) had a special place in his heart for Catholic vocations and spent 45 years mentoring, encouraging and praying for priests, women religious and seminarians, all of whom he loved and supported spiritually and financially. Dad (and Mom) has been highly active with the Seminary since 1972. The Seminary honored Dad and Mom with the Bishops and Rectors Award in 2007.
Dad took his love of vocations even further and joined the Serra Club in 1984. Dad was the president of the Serra Club several times, and had the privilege of being district governor in 2004. His first decision as president was to allow women to join the Serra Club. As governor, he helped establish a holy hour for vocations at the diocesan level, and it became highly successful. He insisted that prayer was the most powerful way to build vocations and that praying before The Blessed Sacrament is the reason we have so many excellent young priests and nuns in our Diocese. While in his 70s, he and Peg helped found a Serra Club in Wabasha and received The Thomas Coughlan Award for it. Even into his 80s, Dad and Mom hosted The Sweet Spirit prayer meeting at their home for young seminarians providing them fun, support and a nonjudgmental, trusted space to pray and discern their vocation. Soon, students from Winona State University heard about the group and joined in the holy merriment, giving Dad great joy. Mom and Dad were humbled to receive the Bishops Medal for their years of leadership at St. Mary’s Parish and the Diocese in 2017.
Dad was a kind, humble and holy person who gave his whole life to others. He was always lifting up everyone else and made others feel special. Unknown to most, Dad and Mom had a humble ministry to those who were known as “the unloved and the unlovely.” This humble calling continued until the day Dad died. Our Dad’s entire life was truly Thomas Merton’s “love in action,” whether you were a patient, a friend, a priest/seminarian/nun, the downtrodden or a fellow Packer fan. He loved all of us and his grandchildren so much, and he taught us through his actions and life lessons how to be an excellent person, parent and friend. Though he worked 60-plus hours a week, he never missed a single basketball game, concert, track and field meet, tennis meet, homework assignment or performance. He said that nothing is impossible with God and if you chose to love and forgive, you will live a happy life. Hours before his passing, Dad gave us a beautiful, inspiring teaching about forgiveness. He is someone to emulate and a man like no other.
We love you, Dad. We know you’re “living again” with your Lord!
The wake for Dr. Zehren will be held on Friday, December 29, from 4-8 p.m. at Fawcett Junker Funeral Home, Winona. From 3-4 p.m. there will be Prayers for Vocations, also at Fawcett Junker Funeral Home, and at 7:30 p.m., the Wake Service. A mass celebrating Dad’s life will be held at St. Mary’s Church, Winona, at 11 a.m. on Saturday, December 30, with a visitation beginning at 10 a.m. in the Visitation Commons of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Interment will be at St. Mary’s Cemetery, Winona.
Donations will be distributed to St. Mary’s Church, The Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary and Catholic Charities.
Services entrusted to Fawcett Junker Funeral Home and Crematory, Winona, Minn., and Fountain City, Wis. Words of sympathy or remembrance may be left at www.fawcett-junkerfuneralhome.com.