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Ikes in Action: Donor Spotlight: Ernie Zeller

Outdoor America 2016, Issue 1

Making the move to the United States from post-war Germany with a wife and six children was no easy task.

However, it was the chance to come to the “greatest country in the world,” and in 1951, Ernest Zeller’s father took it. The family received sponsorship from a West Virginia farmer and spent two years there before moving to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where there was greater job opportunity, especially in the manufacturing field.

Since the very beginning of his life in the United States, Ernie Zeller never took his American citizenship — and the opportunities afforded to him — for granted. At age 20, he joined Army. He met Gerda (his wife of 57 years) soon after. While in his early 20s, Zeller developed an expertise in tool and die manufacturing, first as a die maker in Milwaukee and then in a managerial position at Eberhart Steel in Indiana.

In 1968, Zeller had a stroke of luck that would move him and his young family to South Bend, Indiana. He and a partner had the opportunity to purchase Metalstamp, Inc., a custom design, engineering, and die fabrication plant. Receiving a significant bank loan to purchase the business (which the partners would pay off in just two years), Zeller was now on his way to building a preeminent American business that would gain the reputation as a national metal stamping leader.

Ernie Zeller

In 1971, the Zellers sealed their move to South Bend by purchasing a home in the city’s northwest corridor. As another stroke of luck would have it, their new property backed up to the Izaak Walton League’s St. Joseph Chapter, which includes more than 130 acres of diverse natural habitat, including Juday Creek, three ponds (two of which are stocked for fishing), the St. Joseph River, wetlands, marshes, and woods. For Zeller, who was busy growing his business and working long hours, joining the League in 1974 provided an ideal setting in which to raise his two children, Richard and Steven. With the trail to the League’s lodge starting right in their backyard, the family membership provided his boys with endless outdoor exploration and recreation opportunities. The boys also attended the League’s summer camp, which Zeller’s grandchildren (Maddie and Riley) now look forward to each year.

The Izaak Walton League was the first organization and charity that Zeller supported, and he is proud to be an Ike. Over the past 48 years, the St. Joseph Chapter of the League has provided Zeller and his family with countless memories as well as the opportunity to enjoy the serenity of Indiana’s backcountry. From the everyday presence of deer and other wildlife to the sounds of Juday Creek meandering through his backyard, supporting the League and its mission has been a very satisfying part of Zeller’s life.

At 81, Ernie Zeller, along with his two sons, still runs Metalstamp, Inc. as a family-owned company. He started his business with the adage, “Do something better than anybody else,” and he has done just that. Zeller is gratified that his sons are upholding his American legacy and the business is thriving in the midst of tough competition from China and other countries.

Having the steadfast support of Zeller at the St. Joseph Chapter and at the national level has helped the League achieve important goals for expanding conservation and outdoor recreation activities. It was for the love of our nation and our natural heritage that 54 sportsmen came together to found the League more than 93 years ago, and we are truly appreciative of great Americans like Ernie Zeller who are keeping their legacy alive.