April 12, 2021

Stevens County Times

Your spot for community news in Stevens County, Minnesota

Couple with local ties killed in Canada’s worst mass shooting

Editor’s correction: In this article and obituary published in May 5 edition of the Stevens County Times about John Zahl, we would like to add one important piece of information. John’s mother and stepfather still live in Morris. Gladys and Jim Henricks are mourning his loss along with his children and grandchildren. Gladys also clarified that John was born in St. Paul, not Morris, and graduated in 1968 from Morris High School. Gladys stated she had just talked to John a few days before the incident and was looking forward to seeing him soon. Our sincere sympathy to Gladys and Jim along with John and Joanne’s entire family. 

The news shocked the world when a lone gunman killed 22 people in Nova Scotia, Canada on April 18 and 19. However, when this area heard the news, we didn’t realize that a former Morris resident and his wife were among the victims.

John Zahl and Joanne Thomas were killed by the shooter in their retirement home at Portapique, Nova Scotia. John graduated from Morris High School in 1968 and has many friends and family members remaining in this area. The couple had just retired to the community in 2017 and were enjoying the beauty and peacefulness they found there.

After graduating from Morris, John attended St. Cloud State College for one year. He then joined the United States Navy during the VietNam War era. He served as a Russian Linguist for the navy. He continued with the navy for about ten years.

John has four children from his first marriage, Jennifer, Sarah, Andrew and Daniel. Following his discharge from the military he briefly resided in Bemidji, MInnesota before moving to Grand Forks, North Dakota where he worked for Federal Express. While living there, he met his second wife Joanne Thomas who was from Winnipeg, Canada. They met and were married in 1985.

In 1987, the couple moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico where John continued to work for Federal Express. While here they adopted two of their grandsons, Justin and Riley. John  returned to college and obtained a degree from the University of New Mexico. This was very important to him and he was quite proud of the accomplishment. He retired from Federal Express but continued to work at a local school where he helped students with learning disabilities.

John and Joanne also were great at lending a hand wherever needed. They both volunteered at their church and Joanne with her garden club. Joanne also volunteered with an organization called Trey which stands for trafficked, exploited youth. John helped out with his grandchildren at soccer games.

Joanne loved the Canadian landscape and the couple eventually found their dream retirement home in Nova Scotia.They found a home on the Bay of Fundy, where they enjoyed watching wildlife, going fishing and relaxing in their log home. The town of Portapique had a population of 150 in the winter but grew to 250 in the summer.

That peacefulness was shattered when Gabriel Wortman went on a killing spree on April 18 and 19. There is still an ongoing investigation into what actually happened to the Zahl’s but it is known that their home was one of the homes destroyed by fire through the incident. 

Jennifer Zahl Bruland wants her parents to be remembered for more than the tragic way they died. She stated that they were good kind people. Her dad was so proud to be a veteran and  spent a lot of time volunteering at their church and traveling. She remembers that he attended his 50 year class reunion in Morris and totally enjoyed the time spent visiting with classmates. 

Zahl Bruland stated that Mattatall Varner funeral home in Nova Scotia is helping with arrangements so people wanting to keep up on what is happening can check out their website. It is www.mattatallvarnerfh.com. With the COVID-19 situation, funerals can not be held at this time but they are hoping to have a memorial service in Morris when this is over. Watch the funeral home website or this newspaper for information about the services. Messages for the family can also be left on the funeral home website.

Katie Erdman