Gene – The Early Years – Cars, Girls, The Future, and Nearly Drowning

Mom wrote their story in 2014 in order to share their history with family and family to come.

I’m excited to now share their story with YOU!

In The Ziemke Story you will learn of their Christian Heritage, their early years, ministry, trying times, family, where they’ve been, and how they ended up where they are today!

We will endeavor to share a little bit of  The Ziemke Story each week as Mom wrote it to her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and beyond.


Before we were old enough to drive, we cousins regularly hitchhiked.  It was the only means we had to go the 12 miles to Brown’s Lake in Burlington to swim.  In those days, hitchhiking was common and safe.

My first car was a 1946 Nash. I learned how to shift gears by going back and forth in our short 100 foot driveway.  When I was 15 or 16, my parents bought me a 1949 4-door Chevy.  It was the in-thing to lead in the trunk and hood, put lowering blocks on the back, and split the manifold for duel exhausts which made it loud. Tommy Lossman helped me lead it in.  When we went down the highway it sounded like an airplane taking off.  I can still almost smell the pine tree car-freshener that hung from the dash.

The last couple years of high school I worked at Martin’s Desoto Plymouth Garage, first to do clean up around the shop and then as a detailer of new and used cars. I was seeking to be an apprentice mechanic and did tune-ups, mufflers, and brake jobs. Mr. Bill Martin was the fastidious owner who was willing to hire a teenage boy and teach him that “if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right”, in other words – “or don’t do it at all”.  He meticulously inspected the cars that I detailed, even making sure there was no grease on the hinges of the doors when they opened, and that everything was spotless and up to his required standards.

While there, a dream came true for me to buy a 1957 two-door Plymouth Plaza with a Fury engine, two 4-barrel carburetors, and a 3-speed stick shift on the column.  It was one of the fastest cars in Racine County.  I learned later in life that my brother Pete, who borrowed my car on Friday or Saturday nights, drag raced with anyone who wanted to compete and always won.  He made a little money doing it.

One of my own memories of that car was when I had a buddy and a couple of girls with me.  I pulled up at a stoplight alongside of a 1955 ‘88 Oldsmobile with 3 deuces.  The occupants of that car laughed at the Plymouth until I decided it was enough and took off in first gear.  They were ahead by a length and a half until I shifted in second gear and flew by them. Their mouths dropped open.  That car would go 110 in second gear and bury the needle in third.  The speedometer read 120 and there was a space before it was buried.  I did a lot of repenting over that, but the memory is still as fresh as it was then.  The look on the faces of the guys with their hot Oldsmobile was more than reward enough for their laughing at a plain black Plaza.  My love for cars obviously came from my Dad who took meticulous pride in his cars, keeping them washed, waxed, and clean as a pin inside and out.


I had a flirtatious going steady fling with a girl named Sherrill (my cousin Tex’s cousin) but a more serious interest in Karen, a dedicated Christian girl from Clintonville. She was a beautiful young lady who excelled on the piano.  Alvin, my friend from the Racine church, and I would drive to Clintonville to see our girlfriends and go to church together there.  When that didn’t seem to progress as I had hoped, I turned my affection to Julie, Alvin’s girlfriend’s sister. When we broke up, I started dating a girl from a large and financially very poor family in Union Grove.

Looking To My Future

In 1959, searching for my purpose, I considered joining the air force or becoming a full-fledged mechanic.  An official from UPCI (United Pentecostal Church International) headquarters in St Louis ministered in our church and asked if I had ever considered going to Bible College.  That notion seemed to click and in the late summer of 1959, I packed up my 57 hot-rod Plymouth and, for the first time, made a journey alone, out of state, headed up Highway 2 across the nation to Portland, Oregon.

Late one evening while driving through Montana, I came to a small dilapidated town.  Needing rest, I took a motel room in the only place I could find.  It was a scary and dingy motel in a back alley.  About 2 a.m. I was awakened by someone pounding on the door shouting out a name.  Scared spit less, I tried to sound brave and say “There’s nobody here by that name”!  Sleep was not a part of the rest of the night and I was glad to be on my way in the morning.

At Conquerors Bible College (CBC) in Portland, I had to work my way through college and, alas, because of financial lack, I had to sell my “famous” Plymouth but not before some of the guys at school could see what it could do.  I dated a few girls my first year in Bible College and finally, in my second year, met Lorraine.  (She will tell the rest of that story).

I worked for JK Gill’s Bookstore in downtown Portland, went home for the summer and bought a 55 Chevy Bel Air hardtop and drove it back to school the next year.  That year I worked at Nicolai Door factory for $2.10 an hour, as did a bunch of other guys from CBC.  We had classes in the morning, went to work by 3 p.m. and got home about 1 a.m., tried to catch up on our homework and be up by 6:30 a.m., early for breakfast and another day of classes and work.

During the second year of college, eight of us fellows formed an acapella octet and spent the following summer traveling to churches across America in deputation for the college.  Paul Cowell and I switched off preaching.  Paul liked to introduce me as not needing a watch when I preached, but a calendar.  I got the reputation of being long-winded and that remains to this day.  In my defense, I had a lot to say that needed to be heard.

I also had a reputation for pulling pranks.  One dark night I hid behind a wall in the dorm and jumped out at one of my buddies, David Abbott.  He backed up against the wall in the hallway and just collapsed to the floor.

I Nearly Drowned

An event happened in my first year of Bible College that could have forever altered my destiny on earth.  In the spring of 1960, Conquerors Bible College held its annual one-day all-school outing.  This time it was held at Silver Lake in Washington State.

After a full day of activities and having our picnic, several of the college students rented row boats to take a jaunt out onto the lake.  The student body president, Mel Kaiser, his wife Donna, and a girl I was dating were with me in one of the boats.  Rowing out into the middle of the lake, a spontaneous thought crossed my mind.  Maybe it was even to be a reckless show off.  At any rate, I decided I would take a swim in the lake.  I took off my shoes and shirt and left on my jeans and T-shirt and slipped over the edge of the boat into the water.  Never mind that we had just eaten.

Obviously, not thinking clearly, I swam away from the boat quite a distance and then turned around to head back.  Suddenly I realized I was exhausted.  My jeans were dragging me down.  I began to tread water and shout to those in the boat to come and get me.  Having grown up to be extremely modest, I was not about to take my pants off in the water with girls in the boat. I kept treading as long as I could, hollering for help.  They thought I was pulling a prank and didn’t take it seriously.

Exhausted, I slipped under the water, fought my way to the surface, splashing and screaming “I’m Drowning”.  This happened twice.  The last I saw of the boat in the distance was them scrambling to get the oars out of the bottom of the boat and into the oar locks.  I realized they were too far away and my strength would never endure until they got there.  I slipped down into the water for the third time with the sensation of floating ever so slowly toward to the center of the earth in this sea-green liquid.

In those fleeting moments, my mind saw my mother weeping and headlines of a newspaper saying “Bible college student drowns”. That’s all I remember.  Time stood still and I don’t know how long I was lying on the bottom of the lake.  I began to hear voices and wondered if this was what it was like to die and be ushered into the next realm.  Suddenly, consciousness came.   My head was pounding like a locomotive.  I sensed that I was draped half in and half out of the boat.  The three of them pulled me into the boat and laid me face down on the bottom, not knowing what to do.

Fortunately the mercy of God let me regurgitate an eruption of water while they hurriedly got me to the shore.  It took me days and even years to ever want to be near water, whether swimming or in a boat.   Taking a shower even brought a sense of panic.  Mel had a muscle disease that affected the strength in his shoulders and arms.  When he preached in Chapel service, he had to kind of throw his arms up to the pulpit to turn pages in his Bible.  I knew that he had rescued me but what I didn’t know at the time was “the rest of the story”.

A few years later, after a church fellowship meeting, Mel Keiser came to the basement where they were serving food, threw his arm around my shoulders and said, “I never told you this before, Gene.  Remember the day you were rescued from the bottom of Silver Lake?  When I realized we couldn’t get the boat to you quick enough, I dove into the water and swam to where we saw you last go under.  I found you lying on the bottom of the Lake.  I grabbed hold of you to try to take you to the surface when I realized because of my own muscle disease, I couldn’t do it and I was going to drown myself.  I let go of you to try to save myself and something said to me; ‘You can’t leave him there!’ Gene, I don’t know how I did it, but by God’s help and grace I got you back to the surface of the water and back to the boat.”

From that day until his passing, I’ve been indebted to my friend, Mel Kaiser.  A friend in dire straits himself risked his own life to save a 20 year old Bible college student.  That was about 54 years ago.  By God’s grace and mercy, I have lived to be married 52 years, raise three children, Brenda, Brad, and Bridget and have eight grandchildren.  Kathy Mincer told me in recent years something that I hadn’t known.  It was her father, Jay Craven, in Rupert, Idaho, who reached out with encouragement to young Mel, as his Junior High Sunday School teacher.  And now you know THE REST OF THE STORY!

What if you had never been born?  How many people have been encouraged by you?

1 comment… add one
  • Peggy Feb 22, 2017, 4:03 pm

    Have just started reading the Ziemke Story. Had goose bumps when I read the story of your near drowning. I know you have told the story of nearly drowning before, but NOT the whole story, to my knowledge.
    I will be following this journey. So honored that you and Lorraine have been part of my family’s journey.

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