Millionaire hasn't forgotten his roots in North Braddock

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Jim Zockoll is not your typical rags-to-riches guy.

He's close, though.

The founder and chairman of Zockoll Group Ltd. in the United Kingdom flew in from London for this weekend's 60th reunion of the class of 1949 of the former Scott High School in North Braddock.

About 80 members of the class will kick off the weekend-long reunion at a reception tomorrow night at Grand View Golf Club.

Mr. Zockoll, 79, is a white-haired bear of a man. He's also a multimillionaire -- a successful pilot-turned-plumber-turned-businessman.

Classmate Bill Priatko, a former Steelers player, said: "This reunion is dedicated to the skinny kid we remember who had relatively nothing growing up and defied staggering odds to reach great success financially, yet still kept his humility."

That would be Mr. Zockoll.

"He's a multimillionaire, but he never forgot his roots," said Rudy Celigoi, a retired superintendent of the former Swissvale Area School District.

Mr. Zockoll proudly proclaims decaying North Braddock as his hometown, even though life wasn't easy for him there.

Part Irish, part German, Mr. Zockoll was the oldest of seven children born to a blue-collar couple. His mother died when he was 15, and two brothers died of tuberculosis.

His father remarried and before moving to Mount Oliver, he gave Jim an option: "Come with me or you're on your own."

He moved in with a sister and her husband in Swissvale.

One night, Jim was hanging out with his "gang" in North Braddock. It was late. He had to be in by 11, and he realized he didn't have money for streetcar fare.

"I walked to Swissvale in the rain. I knew I was late," he recalled. He found his clothes packed in two paper shopping bags on the porch.

"I was 16 and homeless. I walked back to North Braddock.

"I was standing on a corner. A cop comes by. He tells me to get off the street.

"I was wet. I was shivering cold. I remembered that an old Irish woman friend of my mother, a cleaning woman at the high school, lived close by.

"It was 3 a.m., but I knocked on her door. She opened it.

"I said, 'I have no place to go.'

"I got tears in my eyes when she said, 'Come in. You have a place now.'

"She was a widow with four kids. Her house was my home for two years."

For his high school graduation, he didn't have a pair of "good" shoes to wear. He wanted a pair of black shoes that a friend had and he tried to borrow them.

"I had a small portable radio," Mr. Zockoll said, chuckling at the memory. "It was my prized possession. I traded it for the shoes."

Then there was "The Studebaker," a clunker that was his first car.

"I drive a Bentley in England," he said. "The first time I got behind the wheel, I felt the same thrill I did the first time I drove that old Studebaker."

As a young adult, following time in the military, Mr. Zockoll borrowed two suits for an interview with Pan American World Airways in New York. He was hired as a pilot at $380 a month.

"I could not believe my first paycheck," he said. "I was making twice what my father made in the mill. I never owned a house, so I went out and bought one in West Islip, Long Island. I bought three others under the GI Bill. I rented all of them."

He became a transatlantic pilot based at New York's Idlewild Airport, now John F. Kennedy International Airport. Mr. Zockoll flew to London three times a month.

In 1963, purely by accident, his flight crew stayed overnight in the Kensington Palace in London.

Life for Mr. Zockoll, his British-born wife Ann and his sons, Steven and Jim, was about to change.

"I was talking with the night manager," Mr. Zockoll recalled.

"He said a sewer drain pipe under the dance floor was clogged. A couple of firms wanted 45,000 pounds sterling to open the drain, but the hotel dance floor would need to be ripped up to reach the blockage. Plans for Christmas were scuttled.

"I said I had a machine in the U.S. that I used to clear drains in my rental properties. It would unclog the drain. I said I'd do it for 5,000 guineas, about $10,000. I flew home, put my 'Snake Rooter' on a plane and flew back to London.

"It took me 20 minutes to unplug the drain. I realized something: There was no drain-cleaning machine like mine in the United Kingdom."

"Jim's first European company was born," George Oltham, a Zockoll Group executive, said from London.

That first company was Dyno-Rod, which Mr. Zockoll founded in 1965. Forty-four years later, it is the UK's leader in drain services.

Mr. Zockoll became known as the "Drain Brain" in the UK.

"Loved the nickname. Loved it!" he said, roaring with laughter. "Hell, they could call me anything. I was a success."

Mr. Zockoll sold Dyno-Rod for more than $100 million in 2004 and shared the wealth with 15 former Pan Am employees who had invested in his companies.

He franchised ice cream parlors in Germany, an auto muffler repair shop and an auto painting shop.

"I'm a serial entrepreneur. I started 10 companies up and seven went bankrupt."

He hasn't forgotten his beginnings.

He and his wife have attended Scott High reunions every five years for decades.

During Super Bowl weekend for the past 10 years, Mr. Zockoll has invited 14 of his Scott High friends to a Florida resort, all-expenses paid. They golf and fish.

His sons are involved in 1-800Flowers, a flower delivery business that is part of Zockoll Group. His son, Jim, is a captain with Continental Airlines.

"I'm humbled by my success," Mr. Zockoll said. "I've been lucky. So many people have helped me, so many good things have happened. It's just unbelievable."

He has been eagerly awaiting this reunion.

"The clock is ticking for all of us," he said. "That makes this reunion special. It could be the last one for some of us."


Freelance writer Norm Vargo can be reached in care of suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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