Interview with Akron City Councilperson Zack Milkovich

| Apr 14, 2022 | Firm News, iForeign Born

When Akron City Councilperson Zack Milkovich immigrated to the United States from Croatia with his family in 1967, Zack was only two old. He recalled being told by his family that when they first arrived in New York City, having disembarked from the cargo ship they spent the previous 18 days on, they had no idea what to do next.  His mother approached a taxi driver and, knowing no other language, spoke to the man in Serbian, asking for help. As it just so happened, the driver spoke Serbian, having encountered newly-arrived immigrants on many occasions before, and drove them to the train station where they would embark that same day on a train destined to Ohio.

As Zack’s mother later told Zack, ‘the Lord was looking out for us!’

Indeed, the family was given the opportunity to immigrate to the United States because Zack’s paternal grandfather had immigrated before them in the early 1950’s because he, himself, had a family connection. His grandfather settled in Norton, Ohio and not long after wards began the patient process of helping his five children come to the United States, one by one.

In the case of Zack’s immediate family, they were Serbian peasant farmers, working the rocky hillside soil, in a small village in the Banija region near the Una River in Croatia when they received the invitation to come to the United States.  His father and mother, both born in late 1930’s/ early 1940’s, respectively, welcomed the opportunity to journey to America so their two sons, Zack and his older brother, Sam, would have more opportunities.

Both his parents were very familiar with the terrorism inflicted upon their section of the county by the Ustasha (a Croatian fascist organization aligned with the Nazis) during WWII and the region’s long history of wars and internal conflicts. In fact, his mother only escaped the fate of the Nazi’s terror, being hidden by her mother in a snow bank when she was a young child.

Thus, they journeyed to the United States on a merchant ship which made stops in Italy and North Africa before finally reaching port in New York City in 1967, with only two suitcases and an American dream. When they arrived in Akron, they lived with Zack’s grandfather for six months during which time Zack’s father went to work for Akron Equipment where he remained employed for 35 years as a hand finisher in the production of tire molds, proudly providing for his family.

The new urban environment of Akron was quite a culture shock for Zack and his family who were used to the simple life in the rural countryside.  Although the early American years would prove difficult for the Milkovich family, the American dream they traveled across the ocean with would eventually be within reach.

Unfortunately, at that time in the late 1960’s, there were no programs in place to help immigrant families transition from their native customs and language and assimilate into their new homes. This proved especially difficult for Zack and his brother as they entered school, not knowing any English. Therefore, Sam was held back a year in school before he mastered it enough to attend classes and he taught their new language to Zack. In the case of his parents, his mother, a housewife, learned English from her two sons. However, his father, who worked in the factory surrounded by fellow Serbian immigrants, never quite mastered it as well as his wife and children.

After less than a year of living with his grandfather, the family bought a duplex via land contract as a generous broker decided to take a chance on them despite the fact they had no assets and no credit.  The Milkovich’s only occupied the bottom half of the duplex and were able to rent out the top section as an additional source of income.  The family moved in with four plates and four spoons, donated by his mother’s sister-in-law. His mother still has one of these spoons, as a reminder of just how far her family has come.

When asked if Zack had ever experienced discrimination as an immigrant, Zack light hardheartedly recalled his elementary school teacher having a good time with his given name “Zdravko” around Halloween since the sound of it made a U.S. born person think of vampires and Transylvania. However, as Zack began talking about his father, he took on a much more somber mood. “My father is one of the smartest people I have ever known.   He dedicated his life to working an honest job to provide for his family and he was discriminated against during that time”, Zack said. “American born co-workers at his shop would call him a damn DP, meaning displaced person.  He didn’t understand what it meant until someone explained it to him in Serbian.”  This type of discrimination hurt him very much.

His family clung to their Serbian/Croatian heritage, regularly attending St. Demetrios Orthodox Church along with four or five other households on their street who hailed from the same region. But the neighborhood was a mixing pot, with neighbors from Greece, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Italy. Many first-generation immigrants forging a path in this new America and helping one another along the way. And it was in this neighborhood that Zack met a young boy named Ernie, who would become his lifelong friend, business partner, and fellow community activist.

As he grew older, Zack had quite a few jobs and eventually went to work for Universal Tire Molds where, like his father, he became a hand finisher in a factory where he was employed for 18 years while at the same time investing in real estate.  Along the way he attended the University of Akron and concluded that there are two paths one can take to become successful: attend college and earn a marketable degree or work hard, save your money and become a successful entrepreneur by investing in one’s own business. Zack chose the latter, while his brother chose the former. His mother is equally proud of them both, he said with a smile.

When asked about his political career, he laughed and said that the story was a “movie in itself” but briefly, Zack beat an incumbent Ohio State Representative in the democratic primary in 2010 which is an impossible feat for an unknown newcomer to the political arena and quite the accomplishment. From 2011 to 2014, he represented Ohio’s 35th House District.  However, in the democratic primary in May of 2014 he was defeated after refusing to play political games and the democratic party fielded and funded another candidate.

‘I don’t see D’s and R’s’, he said, firmly, meaning democrats and republicans. ‘I just see people. A good idea is a good idea, regardless of who it comes from.’

Moreover, it bothers Zack very much that the democrats and republicans are seemingly unable to work together due to ideological bickering.  This is particularly troublesome to Zack because he is known for bridging the gap quite a few times in his political career. For instance,  he was able to partner with very conservative republicans to pass a bill updating the standards for social workers in Ohio at a time when they were hard hit with the burgeoning opioid epidemic, as well as partnering with the Chairman of the Health committee on legislation to extend foster care through the age of 21 to provide a safety net to those children who “age out” of the system at 18, essentially leaving them abandoned.

One of his favorite recollections, however, is how he and his lifelong friend, Ernie, were influenced by M. Night Shymalan’s book, “I Got Schooled; The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap” and how the book’s blueprint for educational reform, when implemented in other areas of the country, were quickly lifting the children most in need and setting them up for future educational success at a level more closely resembling that of their suburban and affluent peers.  With this knowledge they started the non-profit summer “Leap Frog Reading Program” that identifies at risk youth and closes the summer slide reading gap, sending the children back to school in the fall, at times, a full year ahead in reading proficiency. With this information, Zack arranged a meeting with Governor Kasich who was open to starting the program state wide.

Although he lost his bid for reelection in 2014, Zack pulled off a comeback in November of 2015 when he was elected to Akron City Council representing Ward 10.  Not surprisingly, he feels he is more effective serving on the local level because he and his fellow council people are committed to serving their community more than they are special interests even though the latter is still an ever-present issue.

As Zack cautioned, an elected official must always be wary of who his or her contributors are to be a genuine public servant.

Currently, he sits on Budget and Finance, Housing, Health and Social Services and Economic Development Committees and was elected by his colleagues into leadership as the President Pro Tem. However, he has a special interest in assisting young people in their educational process due to the struggle that he and his brother faced when they first came to the United States and the fact that, as immigrants, his parents always emphasized the value of learning. Certainly, he is in favor of extending to people of all ages and backgrounds the options of either attending college or a trade school depending on their own inclinations, abilities and ambitions.  To champion these causes he so values, he is also the President of Akron Kiwanis and takes a special interest in this role to enrich the lives of children.  He takes to heart the mission statement of, “improving the world one child and one community at a time”.

A very compassionate man, Zack has never forgotten how frightening it was for he and his family when they first arrived in the United States and is thus able to relate to what refugees from Laos were going through when they came to work with him in the tire mold shop in the 1980’s.  Accordingly, he formed several lifelong friends during that time. Nowadays, he is quite pleased and honored that so many Nepalese and Burmese people have chosen to make the North Hill area of Akron their new home and credits them with helping to transform that section of the city into a more vibrant neighborhood.

In terms of a family of his own, Zack is unmarried at this time largely due to the fact that he loves what he does, both as a business professional and an elected official and has chosen to devote himself to pursuing these passions. Nevertheless, he said with a wink, he has been dating a delightful young woman for five years now so…

Steering back to a less personal topic, Zack talked a lot about his origins in Croatia which is one of the six countries in what was once Yugoslavia, a region that was very much troubled by warring factions.  He said, with a sigh, that he is very relieved that the United Nations has a presence there now but is still concerned about what might happen should they decide to leave.

As a final thought, he wanted to impress that in no other country in the world could a newcomer arrive with so little, as was the case with his family, and accomplish so much due to their commitment to hard work, realizing opportunities and the support of their community. He recalled with great affection his own father who worked so hard to support his mother, Sam and he, making good use of his skills.  Because of his father’s dedication to his family, both Zack and his brother, Sam, have made the most of their educational opportunities and have succeeded very well in their professions.

Once again, as his mother said, “the Lord is looking out for us!”