A promise to his father

Zach’s father, Gregg passed away from Parkinsonism in May 2016 — the end of Zach’s freshman year of college. Zach made a promise to his father that he would graduate college.

Emily Blobaum

Zach Bollinger leans over his father’s death bed on May 30, 2016. He gently grasps his hand.

“Dad, I’m getting this college degree for you, because I know that’s what you want me to do. I want to make you happy.”

Those were the last words Zach would say to him before his father died one day later.

Zach estimates his promise to his father to graduate college will leave him between $65,000 and $75,000 in debt. But to him, it’s worth it.

He considers himself lucky that he got into Iowa State. He didn’t have a superlative ACT score or an amazing GPA.

But he is driven.

“I wanted to go to college partially because I was inspired by my father; he was the first person to go to college in his family,” Zach said.

Zach also simply just likes to learn.

“I’ve enjoyed learning ever since my 7th or 8th grade year,” Zach said. “And even though I do have ADHD, I do still thoroughly enjoy learning about people and things.”

Zach, who’s in his third year as a marketing and management major, wants to go into brand management.

I like to find value in things and help people, he said.

Each morning, Zach glances at three photos on a shelf adjacent to his desk at his fraternity house. He’s had them since his freshman year.

One is a screenshot of his home screen on his phone. It’s of Zach and his brother, Conner when Zach was in high school. They’re holding a cookie cake that reads “Happy Mother’s Day.”

One is of his Dad and his dad’s friend, Scott, in a kitchen, candidly smiling at the camera.

The third is a photo from October 2006. It’s a posed family photo. Zach’s father, Gregg, is in a tuxedo, his mother, Sheila, is in a bright blue shirt and Zach and Conner are in short-sleeve, button-down shirts. Everyone looks happy.

He’s purposely placed the photographs next to his antidepressants and ADHD pills.

[They] give me something to look forward to and gives me motivation to start the day, Zach said.

“It takes just about everything in the world [to go to college], support from family, friends…” Zach said.

And quite frankly, it takes a lot of money, too.

Currently, the cost of tuition and fees is $10,655 per year for a full time, in-state undergraduate business student at Iowa State.

Zach receives between $1,700 and $2,000 per academic year, courtesy of a Pell Grant. But other than that, he’s responsible for paying the remaining ~$9,000 for tuition and fees and the $7,600 to live in his fraternity house every year.

“I am not kidding when I say this, I literally have to pay for everything except my car insurance and my phone bill. College, 110 percent, I pay for myself,” Zach said.

Zach’s income comes from being a student manager for ISU Catering. He works anywhere between 10 and 20 hours per week, and honestly enjoys it.

“I get it and it just clicks for me. I very much like the workers I work with, and I like the fact that I can walk to work so I don’t have to pay for gas. And meals are provided, so I don’t have to pay for meals,” Zach said.

Before the recession, Zach’s father, Gregg, was making about $75,000 a year. He was the breadwinner of the family. But after he got laid off, he went to a new job where he was being paid $50,000 a year. It wasn’t ideal, but it was just enough for them to get by.

Then his health began to decline.

He had injured his back when he stepped into a pothole during the Glow Run in 2012 and had still been experiencing spasms and general pain several months later.

He went to the chiropractor and was put on different sets of painkillers. They started affecting each other, leading to a “bevy of side effects.”

Gregg went from someone who was fully functional to someone who couldn’t walk or drive in the span of just over a year.

“He had almost turned into a plank,” Zach remembers. “He could barely move … he couldn’t enunciate or talk as well.”

Gregg was admitted to Lutheran Hospital in Des Moines where he would be in and out for a year-and-a-half. At 6-foot-1-inch, he weighed 130 pounds. Doctors tried putting him on different types of medication, hoping to slow down whatever was causing him to degenerate.

In January 2015, the Bollingers went to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Gregg was diagnosed with Parkinsonism, which is characterized by movement abnormalities — like tremors, stiffness and overall difficulty of movement — that are common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. It can be triggered by medications that affect dopamine levels.

One year later, when Zach was a freshman at Iowa State, Gregg was put into hospice care. He was there for five months, before he died on May 31, 2016.

The years between 2012 and 2016 were the hardest four years of Zach’s life with his father’s death and family financial troubles, on top of adjusting to college and going through a breakup.

He’s still worried about the future. What if my mom’s health declines, too? What happens if she’s gone? Where would I go? What would happen?

“The one thing that scares me the most is the solidity of my life,” Zach said. He knows there’s no guarantee of tomorrow.

But for now, things are looking up. He’s a year out from graduation. He enjoys his job. He has a solid group of friends that he’ll have for the rest of his life.

“2016 has been the lowest valley in my life, and I know that within a valley, there is only one way to go and that is up,” Zach said in a Facebook post. “The hardest times are past.”

For now, the thought of his student loan debt is tucked away. Because there are more important things to focus on.

Like keeping his promise to his father.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the name of Zach’s brother.