The following article by Charles Hartley originally appeared in The Courier-Journal on 9 May 2012. It is archived here with additional information for your reading enjoyment.
Bob Zimmerman's broad range of interests, knowledge and proficiency in a variety of areas qualified him as a Renaissance Man.
Born on a small farm in Virginia in 1867, James Robert Zimmerman learned early how to cut stone for construction of buildings and bridges. He arrived in Louisville in 1888 where he took a job with the McDonald Jail Building Company. In 1891 his skill led the company to send him to Shepherdsville to superintend the construction of the stone jail that still stands today behind the courthouse.
Here he met Frank Straus and James Fletcher Combs, two fine local lawyers who encouraged him in the study of law. In 1893 he was licensed to practice law at Shepherdsville where he spent most of the rest of his life.
Within a decade he earned the community's respect and entered his first political office as town attorney. Then in 1909 he was elected as the area's representative in the General Assembly, defeating his primary opponent by 924 votes, the largest majority ever given a candidate in Bullitt County in any kind of election up to that time. Later he was elected State Senator and served during the 1914-1916 sessions.
In l917 The Pioneer News called him "one the most conservative, conscientious, faithful and hard-working legislators in either House or Senate," and said that he had "striven with unceasing energy to do his duty in each and every instance, while in Frankfort." This was consistent with the praise the paper gave him the previous year when it printed, "He is a credit to his county and district, absolutely honest, strictly moral and an untiring worker. Bob Zimmerman has worked longer and accomplished more for the welfare of his fellow man, his party and his state and asked less and consequently received less than any other public man in Kentucky."
Law and politics were not his only interests. As a man who appreciated the value of a good education, he was a constant supporter of the schools. He was always quick to lend his voice and support to school projects, including the drive to raise funds to build the new school auditorium in 1924. His financial generosity extended both to large and small things, including frequent cash prizes in student competitions.
One reported anecdote serves to help define Zimmerman's character as a man of action. One night, while he was attending a lodge meeting, someone stole a friend's horse and buggy. When the theft was discovered, Zimmerman quickly joined three lodge brothers and pursued the thieves in an automobile. Near Camp Taylor they caught up with the thieves who were soon arrested.
Remembering his farming roots, Bob Zimmerman obtained a farm, but had little time to devote to its management. So he placed an advertisement in the local paper that read, "I want a good tenant to grow tobacco on my farm adjoining the J. C. Holsclaw farm on Mountain Top. I have an attractive offer to make to any good man who will work. Will give him all he can raise except the tobacco crop, of which I want one half. Good barn, good fruit, three room house, and a good stripping house. Come see me at once, or write." Quite a generous offer.
His years in the courtroom and in the legislature developed his speaking talents, and he was often called upon to speak in support of community projects. These same skills were on display at various local plays and musical events where his stage presence as an actor and singer were appreciated.
Of particular note was his support in fund-raising for Armenian and Syrian Relief, and for the Salvation Army about which he wrote "No organization engaged in war work did a grander work than the Salvation Army, and this drive is for the purpose of starting them up in this country as they spent all they had during the big war."
Bob Zimmerman had remained a bachelor most of his life, so it was a surprise to many when he and his close friend, Miss Josie Barrall were quietly married in April 1926. Bob was 58 and Josie was 36, and it was an especially happy time when she gave birth a bit more than a year later to a fine son who was named for his father.
Bob's skill in speaking was matched by his mastery of the written word. His interest in the history of his adopted community led him to write about it in the local paper as well as in articles printed in Louisville and beyond. In September 1931 he began writing a series of articles for The Pioneer News in which he described Shepherdsville and its people at the time he first arrived there in 1891.
His excellent memory of places and people is a delight to read even today. The articles ran almost weekly for over a year. His last column appeared on November 4, 1932. The next evening, while he was speaking at Lebanon Junction, Bob suffered a heart attack. Two days later he died.
His widow and son continued to live in Shepherdsville for many years. An industrious woman, Josie is listed in the 1940 census as a social worker involved in old age pensions. She later worked with the Selective Service. Josie Zimmerman died in Louisville in 1973. Her son married Anna Sanders in 1950 while he was in the army. Later he worked for Texas Instruments for many years until his death in Texas in 2004.
Shepherdsville was blessed to have Bob Zimmerman, and it is good to remember him.
Two sketches of Bob Zimmerman's career may be found on the page titled "James Robert Zimmerman."
A description of Bullitt County in 1918, written by Mr. Zimmerman, is located on another page.
Mr. Zimmerman wrote about "The Last Indian Fight in Bullitt" in 1909. It appeared first in The Courier-Journal, and later in The Bullitt News. We have it on another page.
He also wrote about Paroquet Springs for The Courier-Journal in 1909. We have that article on another page.
Finally, his essays on the people and places in 1891 Shepherdsville have been transcribed by Betty Darnell and are available in booklet form at the museum or ordered directly from Betty Darnell. They are titled Prepared by the Devil's Devil.
Copyright 2012 by Charles Hartley, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.