Henry “Hank” Zumach

On this date in 1942, freethought activist Henry Herman “Hank” Zumach was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, to Henry P. Zumach and Ann Katherine (Roraff) Zumach. With only fourth grade and sixth grade educations, both parents managed to attain lower level management positions. His mother was a practicing Catholic and his father was agnostic. Zumach grew up in the La Crosse area and attended Catholic schools for five years, starting in the fourth grade. (Due to his high IQ scores, he was allowed to skip fifth grade.) His parents allowed him to attend public high school after he decided that he could not believe the parochial school’s religious teachings.

Married and with two children, in 1965 he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse with majors in psychology and business administration. His working career included human resources management for two large industrial companies, then teaching industrial safety laws, then starting and owning a residential roofing company. He retired in 1997. Zumach served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves from 1959 to 1965.

While he’d long been supportive of state-church separation and his doubts about religion started when he was about 12, it was after he retired that Zumach decided to become more involved when he saw a news story in the La Crosse Tribune about a local couple helping the Freedom From Religion Foundation sue the city for allowing a Ten Commandments monument in a city park. The husband had died and his wife, Sue Mercier, felt unable to continue as the sole plaintiff, so Zumach started making phone calls and convinced 21 others to join the suit. “I accepted the role of spokesperson for the plaintiffs and the lawsuit became the largest Tribune story two years in a row.”

 While U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2003, despite the city’s sale of the small piece of land containing the monument to a private fraternal group, she was overturned in 2005 by an appeals court. The court, however, did not dispute the part of Crabb’s ruling that display or ownership of the Ten Commandments by the city was unconstitutional. A dissenting appellate judge called the land sale a “sham” bordering on “fraud.”

Zumach co-founded the La Crosse Area Freethought Society in 2008, eventually arranging for members to write monthly columns on secular topics for the La Crosse Tribune, which published them for six years. He retired as its president in 2016. In 2015, working with the American Humanist Association, he established the Henry Zumach Award for Freedom From Fundamentalist Religion to recognize individuals and groups that have taken a stand against religious intolerance and bigotry.

The first recipient was the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo that was attacked by Muslim extremists for publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, in consultation with the benefactor, now oversees and administers the annual award (recipients here). It was instituted at $10,000 but was later set at 5 percent of the endowment. By 2022 the award had grown to $35,000.

Zumach was the recipient of an FFRF special award in 2016 as a Freethought Extraordinaire. He lives in La Crosse with his longtime domestic partner, Betty Hammond, and has a son, Todd, and a daughter, Kelly.

Freedom From Religion Foundation