October 19, 2017


John Zerbe


Derry Church is blessed by the many people who make up our church family. In addition to their roles and leadership at church, they have often played important roles in the growth and development of the larger Hershey community. Hershey Community Archives’ oral history collection holds interviews with many Derry Presbyterian Church members. These interviews provide information about their lives and contributions to Derry and the community. Special thanks to elder and Archives Director Pam Whitenack, who edited John’s oral history for this week’s message.

John Zerbe grew up in Lykens. In 7th grade, he began attending a boarding school in Owings Mills, Maryland. In 1948 he enrolled as a freshman at Penn State Harrisburg, when the campus was located in the city. Thinking it would be a fun activity, he and some friends started a dance band. As John related in his 1996 oral history interview, 

We had pretty much all the pieces in place, with the exception of -- we needed a piano player, and we couldn’t find one, and finally, this girl said, “Well, I’ll substitute while you continue to look,” and that girl happened to be Mary Jane, who was a church organist, but obviously read music well and what have you.  So that’s how Mary Jane and I met.

After freshman year, he and Mary Jane transferred to the Penn State main campus. Believing that it was his civic duty, he interrupted his studies to join the Air Force in 1950. He and Mary Jane married the following year and they spent the rest of his service on Guam with the Air Weather Service Typhoon Board. In 1954 they returned to Penn State to finish college, graduating in 1956. John’s degree was in Recreation Administration.

In 1960 John returned to Harrisburg as the city’s first director of recreation. He was excited about the job, anticipating a great future in Harrisburg. In spite of his enthusiasm, the following year sat down with John O. Hershey for a job interview. That interview led to a new career path for John Zerbe.

Hershey was beginning a period of what would be dramatic change in the community. Corporate leaders felt that Hershey needed more opportunities for recreation. John was hired to manage and develop programming for the Hershey Community Center and to oversee the construction of a new recreational facility on Cocoa Avenue, the Cocoa Plaza (Hershey Recreation Center).

And when I came to Hershey, it was an opportunity to work with the corporate world, and it was an entirely different world to me, and a wonderful world.  If you wanted to do something, and you convinced whomever that it was a good thing to do, you were able to do it in no time flat.  It was like having an open cookie jar in front of you all the time, just eat until you couldn’t eat any more… The mindset of the leaders of the community at that time were just so positive and there were no restrictions.  You didn’t have a hundred channels to go through, and it was wonderful.  

For the next ten years John oversaw the growth and development of a rich and varied recreational program. Adult education classes, ranging from pottery to yoga to bridge, were offered at the Community Center. The Center also was home to a preschool, a commercial radio station, the newly established Hershey Symphony, and was the first home for WITF-TV and radio. In 1970, John’s responsibilities grew again when he assumed responsibility for the management and programming of Hershey Theatre. 

John’s management skills were recognized  in 1976 when he was offered a job at Hersheypark. The amusement park was being transformed into a themed park and there was a strong desire to incorporate entertainment into the park’s offerings.  John assumed responsibility for marketing, sales, maintenance, security, and particularly entertainment: he envisioned Hersheypark as a destination for professional entertainment.

I think our shows in Hersheypark, were, within a relatively short period of time, and still to this day, are very close to the same kind of quality that Opryland has, and I would say that outside of Opryland, I don’t know of a park that touches us in entertainment today.

In March 1979, central Pennsylvania became known world-wide as the site of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Hershey lay outside the ten-mile perimeter and the Arena was designated as an evacuation site. John played an important role in helping to provide services to the evacuees. The Red Cross provided cots and blankets. Hershey provided food, water, and medical care. At the time of the accident, it was not known how long the evacuees would need to stay at the Arena.

It was scary. I was one of a handful who manned the arena.  We were there night and day and took in all these people and worked with the Red Cross and worked with the state on getting the arena set up to receive people.  

None of us knew how serious or how severe this thing was or what the extent of the reaction would be.  I sent my family out of town. I knew that I was going to stay, and we had, as I said, a handful of us that supervised what was going on and prepared to do whatever, based on whatever, to the extent that we could.  

Many of the evacuees were mothers with young children who had no other place to go. Fortunately, the accident was not as severe as it had first been feared and people were permitted to return home after a few days.

John left Hershey during 1981-1988 to work for a number of organizations including the Baltimore Convention Center, the Miss America Pageant, and for the Maryland Tourism office. He returned to Hershey in 1988 to serve as HERCO’s Executive Vice President and COO before retiring in 1993. Mary Jane continues to be an active member of Derry Church.

Read the enews article John Zerbe wrote in January 2009.