The legacy of Brian Bergkamp and Jo Zakas will live on in the memories and hearts of all who have been touched by their heroism, faith and selflessness. They had lives well lived.
For those fortunate to have known Brian Bergkamp, they remember him as adventurous, friendly, always willing to lend a hand and dedicated to serving God. On July 9, Bergkamp lost his life while heroically trying to save the life of another.
While kayaking with friends on the Arkansas River, the group encountered rough waters. Kristen Eck’s kayak overturned and she fell into the water. True to his nature, Bergkamp turned around to help Eck reach safety. Then his kayak capsized, and Bergkamp was swept into the river.
“There was no hesitation or fear or tremble in him as he was helping me that day,” Eck said. “He was completely calm and at peace the entire time.”
Eck recalled meeting Bergkamp for the first time the morning of the accident. “He was one of those people that made you feel like you were the only person in the world when he was speaking to you,” Eck said. She asked Bergkamp about his priestly vocation, “Brian told us that he had always kinda thought he might want to be a priest; but no matter what profession he chose, he knew he wanted to help and serve people. He thought about police and firefighter before deciding that it was as a priest that he was called to help and serve in big, bold ways.”
Teresa Bergkamp, Brian’s mother, said that her son had considered becoming a priest when he was a grade-schooler, “It was the fine example of our present and previous pastors that inspired him to become a priest, as well as his desire to help people.”
The 24-year-old was a seminarian in the Diocese of Wichita and was scheduled to be ordained in 2018 after completing seminary college. Teresa shared stories of his selfless nature. “He was always putting other people first,” she said. “Brian made sure everyone had what they needed and would often take or use the simple things and let others have the nicer things.”
The son of Teresa and Ned, Bergkamp graduated from Garden Plain High School in 2010 and attended Benedictine College for one year before entering Conception Seminary College. As one of seven children, his siblings remember him as "happy go lucky" and being able to think outside the box. They said he would often make jokes to help turn people’s moods around or to lighten a tense situation.
An outdoor enthusiast, Bergkamp enjoyed hiking, swimming and hunting. According to Teresa, he also enjoyed woodworking and “was quite good at it” — making several pieces of furniture and smoking pipes. “He always was doing something to keep himself busy,” Teresa said.
There was no guarantee that either Eck or Bergkamp would make it out of the river alive that day, but Bergkamp did not hesitate to risk his life to help Eck. “Brian lived up to what he said about wanting to serve in big ways.” said Eck. “Priests are called to stand ’in the person of Christ,’ and you don't get any more Christlike than laying down your life for basically a total stranger for the chance that she might live. Brian boldly gave his life for the chance that I might make it out. I give prayers of thanks and of intercession to him daily.”
Known in the business community as a visionary and a leader, Jo Zakas was a self-made woman. Longtime friend, Kathy Deane remembers Zakas for her love of life, “Jo enjoyed the best that life had to offer.” She was passionate about art, had a keen sense of style and loved to travel. And she wanted others to have the best in life too. Deane said, “She liked helping people reach their full potential…to be their best self.”
Zakas was involved in many aspects of cultural and community development, and specifically, she was dedicated to the personal and professional development of other women. As one of the founders of Happiness Plaza on Douglas Avenue, Zakas was instrumental in shaping the retail landscape in east Wichita for much of her life. In her 20s, she began acquiring a collection of older houses along Douglas which eventually became Clifton Square Shopping Village and home to numerous retailers and restaurants over the years.
Although Zakas sold Clifton Square in 2016, she still owned Artist Central Studios and Gallery and managed the Clifton Square Foundation at the time of her death. Zakas died in August, at age 75, following a surgery to remove an aneurysm from her aorta.
To say Zakas was an asset to the community is an understatement Deane said, “Jo gave selflessly, and believed that if you have a talent or a resource you should give back and help other people.” One of Zakas’ talents was connecting like-minded people, encouraging them to collaborate and produce great outcomes.
“Jo’s success was because of her determination, dedication and hard work,” said Lynn Gilkey, founder of Rise Up For Youth, a nonprofit organization which provides leadership training to at-risk teens in the Wichita community. “She became one of my mentors and often spoke to the girls in the group about how important it was for them to be independent.”
Gilkey laughed that one of her favorite memories of Zakas was when she told a group of teenagers, “Don’t have a bunch of babies if you’re lonely…go get a puppy!” That was Zakas’ style — she told it like it was — and wanted the young women to hear loud and clear that they should be in control of their finances and their fertility. Zakas was ninth in a family of 17 children, and left home at age 13 to live with her grandmother. She used her life experiences to mentor women personally and professionally.
Known to follow her intuition, Zakas was a trailblazer for local businesswomen. She was an entrepreneur her entire life, beginning at the age of 17 with the purchase of an insurance agency. The Wichita Business Journal recognized Zakas in 2003 as part of the Women in Business awards.
“Jo would want to be remembered for her spiritual side and as an example of how people should give selflessly of their gifts — not necessarily monetary gifts — but of their knowledge, creativity and passion,” said Deane.
Gilkey concluded, “I miss her advice. I miss her wisdom…I just miss her.”
So does all of Wichita!