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Margaret Zaas, 79; Helped Veterans Rebuild Their Lives

April 24, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Margaret "Maggie" Zaas believed that what was broken -- in a person, a city, or the world -- could be repaired, so she dedicated her life to the gentle art of restoration.

With characteristic high energy, Zaas left a mark on Los Angeles and its people, particularly the residents and graduates of New Directions, a residential rehabilitation program for homeless and addicted veterans where she had served for 16 years.

For Zaas, 79, who died April 10 of lung cancer at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, the veterans were the best evidence that her belief was true.

They were among the many mourners who filled University Synagogue last week for a memorial service. Zaas had been a part of their personal restoration, there at the beginning of their new sober lives, encouraging them, believing in them, knowing all about their past mistakes and pulling them close anyway.

"I haven't been loved like that by anybody else except my mother," said George Hill, a veteran and graduate of New Directions who attended the service. "That's why we all called her 'Mother.' "

It was a title she embraced with abandon, accepting the responsibilities and joys that came with it. A belief in restoration, and the expansive type of motherhood Zaas practiced, went hand-in-hand.

"She loved being called Mother or Mumsie," said Toni Reinis, executive director of New Directions and a longtime friend. "It was all about acceptance and encouragement. New Directions really gave her an opportunity to be who she really loved to be ... a woman who cared for all humanity -- I mean sincerely cared."

Zaas was born Sept. 7, 1926, in Detroit. Her father, Thomas Jutten, was a patternmaker for auto companies. Her mother, Violet, was a homemaker born in England.

After moving to California, Zaas, who was raised as a Methodist, married Herbert Latter in 1955 and converted to Judaism. Three years later, Latter died of a heart attack, leaving her with two small boys.

"No matter what happened in her life, she had these positive Midwestern values, 'Let's just forge ahead, everything's going to be fine,' " said her friend Tanya Flanzbaum.

She married Alan Zaas, a restaurateur, who adopted her sons, Robert and John.

Over the years, she worked part time at a Santa Monica antique shop called Something Old, Something Nouveau, that she owned with five friends. Adventurous and daring, she traveled the world, often to unlikely spots, visiting headhunters in Borneo, sleeping in Bedouin tents in Morocco and climbing glaciers in Patagonia at the age of 74.

Almost every day for more than 40 years, Zaas spent hours volunteering with civic organizations and schools.

In the 1970s, she was involved with a group of mothers opposed to the war in Vietnam. When a group of veterans protested day after day at the federal building, she would collect their dirty clothes, wash them at home and return them.

"If we both supported something, I was the kind of person who wrote a check, she was the kind of person who'd be downtown carrying a sign," said her husband, who survives her along with her sons and a granddaughter.

She helped organize a police-citizen group, created an after-school program for kids, provided meals to AIDS patients, served as a synagogue officer and board member, worked with the Westside Children's Museum, was a den mother, an escort for Girl Scouts on trips to such places as the Arctic Circle, and a host for foreign students at UCLA.

In 1993 the city named her a woman of the year for her community service.

"She was the absolute epitome of tikkun olam," said University Synagogue Rabbi Emeritus Allen Freehling, referring to the Hebrew term for the mystical act of repairing the world through acts of love and kindness.

Although she was a convert to the faith, Zaas did not resign herself to the role of passive participant. She was active in the life of the synagogue, participating as an officer and a member of the board, where she could be counted on to be the voice of reason, the straight talker or sometimes the devil's advocate.

More than once Zaas was asked to become president of the synagogue, and each time she declined; she needed time for her other pursuits.

In 1992, her involvement in the synagogue drew the attention of Reinis, who with John Keaveney and Larry Williams was starting a program for homeless and addicted veterans in Westwood.

Located at the Veterans Affairs facility in West Los Angeles, New Directions offers dorm-style housing as well as counseling and job training classes. Each year hundreds of homeless veterans begin the program, designed to prepare them to once again become productive members of society.

Zaas served as the original chairwoman of the board of directors of New Directions and worked in human resources. The titles mattered less than the role she played in the lives of men and women, whom she remembered by name long after they left the program.

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