'Swan Man' Ken Zulla wins Chief Junaluska Award

By Lake Junaluska Center | Aug 11, 2014
Photo by: Donated THE 'SWAN MAN' — Pictured is Ken Zulla, affectionately known as the 'Swan Man,' holding the Chief Junaluska Award and sitting among his prize-winning dahlias.

By: Melanie Threlkeld McConnell

Ken Zulla was called a lot of things during his 30 years as an auditor for the United States government, but nothing like the sobriquets he has earned since moving to Lake Junaluska more than 13 years ago — Swan Man, Dahlia Man, Chief Environmentalist, Litter Man.

But this latest — winner of the 2014 Chief Junaluska Award — epitomizes the commitment this former upstate New Yorker has made to his adopted community and his own transformation from perceived "mean, ol’ IRS man" to true humanitarian with a soft spot for troubled swans, flowers and people in need.

Bob Bowling, president of the Junaluska Associates, said the organization’s executive committee honors someone whose actions reflect his or her love for the Lake.

"The person we look for is someone who has unselfishly given leadership and good works for the benefit of Lake Junaluska Assembly, and Ken Zulla has done that over and over again in many different venues," said Bowling. "He was the nominee this year who was unanimously adopted by the executive committee of the Junaluska Associates."

Last year’s winner, Hattie Polk, presented Zulla with the award during the Associates' Aug. 1 meeting, calling him "an exemplar for all the followers of our faith."

"This year’s honoree is a master of 'being God’s hands on this earth,'" Polk said, in introducing Zulla. "This steward nurtures, cherishes and shares the beauties of God’s creation. This botanical genius has been eager to share the fruits of floral labor for the enjoyment of numerous activities at the lake. More importantly, this model of Christian commitment serves the local church not only as financial guide but also minister to the 'least of these among us,' ... As an authentic student of our Lord, he empowers those in need among us, giving an unemployed man a job he was unable to do himself."

And that’s not all.

Zulla saves swans from embedded fish hooks and spills over the dam; feeds the swans and enlists others to feed them; grows award-winning dahlias and gives them away; and mentors Cub Scouts and has sponsored an Eagle Scout project. He also picks up trash around the lake, designed buckets to hold cigarette butts and provides financial assistance to hire unemployed people to help keep the lake’s conference grounds clean. He has received the Community Pride Award from the Commission for a Clean County for these efforts.

He also serves on multiple Lake Junaluska committees, as well as committees at Long’s Chapel United Methodist Church, where he attends. Several years ago, Zulla served as a financial auditor, which enabled Long’s Chapel to receive a substantial amount of money from the audit of its trust fund. He has taken his dahlias to cancer patients at Asheville’s Hope Center — at one point, every window sill had a vase filled with a Ken Zulla dahlia. Zulla also used his dahlias to raise funds to help Bethel Christian Academy rebuild, following damage by hurricanes Ivan and Frances.

Zulla has served as treasurer of The Open Door, the National Association of Retired Federal Employees and the Carolinas Dhalia Society, all at the same time. He has even been featured in the Aug. 11 issue of Southern Living Magazine. For the past two years he has run the Carolinas Dahlia Society dahlia show in Asheville. But dahlia lovers don’t have to travel over the mountain to see one of Zulla’s award-winning dahlias. He grows them at home and then fills a wheelbarrow or bucket full to leave along the walking path for people to take.

"Basically I’m trying to share what God grows, and there’s nothing more special than giving flowers to a person," said Zulla. "It brings a certain look on their face. My mother taught me to share flowers. She said she didn’t want flowers on her grave, but wanted them while she was alive. Now my grandson, Mark, who is 8, likes to sit down there and give away dahlias."

But it’s the swan stories that have amazed even Zulla himself, especially the one about Mac, the swan so embedded with a three-point treble hook that his neck was pinned backward. Zulla saw the swan struggling in the lake and got him out. He threw a blanket over the swan’s head and pulled out the hook with pliers. He then called his friend, the Rev. Woody Adams, to take them to Junaluska Animal Hospital, where the swan was bathed and given a shot. Adams had to leave, so Zulla called his wife, Evelyn, to pick him up.

"I said, 'You need to come and get me and we have to put Mac back in the lake,'" he said.

When Evelyn arrived, Mac sat on Zulla’s lap, while Evelyn drove.

"Mac leaned over and put his head on Evelyn’s shoulder," said Zulla. "It was one of the most affectionate things I have ever seen."

On Thanksgiving Day 2013, the Zullas found a note in their door as they prepared to leave the house for Thanksgiving dinner. The note said the swan had “gone over the dam.”

"I grabbed a loaf of bread and we drove around," Zulla said. "I handed my wife my cellphone and wallet and took off my shoes and walked into the stream. I took out a big piece of bread and threw it out in the water to him and I was able to bring him back to the shore and put him back into the lake."

And so the stories go — Zulla saving swans, building buckets for people to throw their cigarette butts in, mentoring a Boy Scout to help him build frames for the trash cans that sit around the lake. One can see a pattern here: preserving the lake’s natural beauty. When a foot injury prevented Zulla from walking around the lake and picking up trash, he and his wife established an endowment for an unemployed person to have a summer job keeping the lake clean.

"When I look at Lake Junaluska, I look at Lake Junaluska as my home, not just as my residence, but my home," said Zulla. "I take care of Lake Junaluska like I would take care of my home."

Receiving the Chief Junaluska Award was the icing on the cake for Zulla, who can’t imagine living anywhere else.

"It’s a 'thank you' from the community and that’s what it’s all about," he said. "You never expect when you’re doing these things that you’re going to be recognized for it. I’ve been a good steward of the lake, watching over it. It was a great honor that people went out of their way to write in my name."

And who says the IRS doesn’t have a heart?

The Junaluska Associates is an organization of individuals from across the jurisdiction and beyond, who love Lake Junaluska and want to serve in partnership with the Lake Junaluska Assembly. For more information, visit www.lakejunaluska.com/associates.