A broken clavicle Zach Wahls’ freshman year at West High School may have changed the entire course of his family’s history.
The former University of Iowa civil engineering student’s testimony to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee might not have happened, his moms recently mused, if he had continued with his football career and became the Trojan quarterback.
Instead, the broken bone derailed his football career. So, Zach switched gears and got more heavily involved in speech, debate, and theater, becoming a standout on the speech and debate team and on the stage instead of on the football field.
Those well-honed speech and debate skills allowed Zach to become an overnight social media sensation after he delivered a poignant address to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee in a public hearing Jan. 31, 2011, regarding a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Iowa. And the YouTube video posting of the testimony went viral, becoming the most viewed political video in 2011.
As a result, the past 18 months have been a whirlwind for an already busy family.
“Tall Mom” Terry Wahls continues to juggle her career as clinical professor of internal medicine in the UI Carver College of Medicine and the Iowa City VA Medical Center while writing a book about the Wahls Protocol—using diet, exercise, and a lifestyle intervention that helped her defeat progressive MS without drugs. The protocol is the heart of an ongoing clinical trial involving others with progressive MS.
Jackie Reger—“Short Mom,” as Zach affectionately refers to his nonbiological mom—works as a nurse practitioner at the Iowa City VA Medical Center. And Zach’s younger sister Zebby, a May graduate of West High School, plans to attend the UI this fall, where she'll major in art and art history.
The impact of the viral video was just a precursor to the attention their lives would receive upon the April 2012 publication of My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family, Zach's book about his life story (written with journalist and author Bruce Littlefield).
Prior to the publishing of the book, Zach had already been besieged with invitations and requests from national media for interviews, and to give guest lectures, and pursue advocacy opportunities. Those public appearances multiplied once the book hit the shelves.
Though the moms were reluctant to have Zach put his education on hold, they say they were the ones who actually encouraged him to take a sabbatical so he wouldn't ruin his GPA.
And, they say they’re deeply grateful to their employers and colleagues—UI President Sally Mason among them—for their good wishes and support. They were both especially grateful they could take two weeks off right after the book came out in April so they could accompany Zach to dozens of media interviews, book readings, and other public events.
“Our employers basically said, ‘This is out of the ordinary, but this is a big family event, and we’re very proud of you and your family,’” Jackie says.
Brushes with fame
Jackie and Terry have crisscrossed the country, from New York to California, giving interviews, signing books, and sometimes simply basking with pride in the wings, watching their son share the stories and insights that he's now recounted hundreds of times.
A few of their favorite books…
Terry’s current favorite books tend to be from the nonfiction genre focused on health, diet, and wellness books such as those by Dr. Mark Hyman. However, she’s also drawn to fiction, though she’s prone to read it “cover to cover.”
Growing up, Jackie enjoyed the Nancy Drew series, though she’s always been drawn to the mystery genre. She especially relished graphic novels and comics growing up such as Wonder Woman. A recent favorite read for Jackie is Annabel by Kathleen Winter.
Zebby is drawn to the graphic novel comic book genre, given her artistic talents, with favorite books being Persepolis and the Sherlock Holmes series. She also likes The Watchmen, a comic book limited series.
Zach’s favorite authors/books are Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titans and Cat’s Cradle; Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers; the Calvin and Hobbes comic; Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club; and any books by Barack Obama, JK Rowling, or Harry Turtledove.
Book festival reading
Zach Wahls will read from his book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes A Family, at the Iowa City Book Festival at 5 p.m., Saturday, July 14, in the Old Capitol Museum Senate Chamber. To learn more about the festival or to see the complete schedule, visit now.uiowa.edu/2012/07/book-festival-new-location-laughs-languages.
They've had their own share of brushes with fame through their son, meeting or seeing up close and personal the likes of Rachel Maddow, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Ellen DeGeneres.
During a visit to the CNN studios, Zach met a blond woman who was making a media appearance for publishing a cookbook. She had offered him an autographed copy of her book, but Zach told her he would give it to one of his moms instead, since she's really into food.
Zach dutifully passed on the book to Terry. It was autographed, "To Terry, all the best, Olivia Newton-John." The musician/actress was promoting her new cookbook Likewise: Easy Recipes for a Healthy, Happy Life.
"Zach didn't know who she was," Jackie says, "but she knew who he was."
Although meeting celebrities is fun, the moms say it's the complete strangers who approach them with gratitude, good wishes, hugs, and even give them standing ovations that touch them the most.
"It's amazing and wonderful to be thanked just for being a good parent," Jackie says. "Every parent should be thanked for being a good parent."
Jackie and Terry say they were especially moved during a Human Rights Campaign event last spring in Washington, D.C. where they and Zebby were invited on stage to introduce Zach. The crowd erupted in a standing ovation.
"We were recognized for the fact that we were willing to spend all that time coaching values and making our kids pick up their rooms," Terry says.
That coaching and cultivating of values occurred throughout Zach and Zebby's lives. For Zach, his involvement in the Boy Scouts as well as his moms' active participation (Short Mom was a den leader, Tall Mom a cub master) instilled values that he still adheres to today. In fact, he focused each chapter of his book on a different Boy Scout motto—from "Be Prepared" to "Do a Good Turn Daily."
Books play vital role in binding family
Although Boy Scouts instilled a lot of values into Zach, reading played an essential role as well.
“We read every night,” Terry says. “When we first started talking values, we would read the story, and then that month’s value, and then we would talk about how that played out in that story that we read.”
They frequently read and discussed William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories around the evening dinner table.
Some of their other favorite books and authors that they read to Zach and Zebby growing up were the Kate Shelley stories and the Berenstain Bears and Magic School Bus series. Detective books were also favorites.
The entire family got sucked into the Harry Potter series. “You should have seen this family when those books came out,” Jackie says. “We’d read 10 to 12 hours at a time.”
Reading Zach’s book was tough for both moms. In fact, Jackie says she still hasn’t read the entire published book, though they were interviewed and heavily consulted during the writing for accuracy of some of Zach’s memories, especially when he was younger.
“I think it’s lovely, and it’s beautifully written, but the emotions are way too intense,” Terry says. “There’s a lot of joy, but there are also some recollections of profoundly difficult times in our lives.”
They hope that other readers will learn from reading about their family as real people who can make a difference.
Publishing and public speaking run in the family. Terry knows that part of Zach’s motivation in writing and speaking about his family comes from observing her battle and recovery from MS; she spent so much time writing and lecturing about her experiences to help others.
“He feels this is a way of giving back,” Terry says.
Book sales have been brisk for My Two Moms, and the moms say they enjoy purchasing the book as a gift for family and friends.
‘Accelerating the velocity of change’
Though the initial media blitz is winding down, Zach continues to travel coast to coast, speaking at rallies, giving public readings, and engaging in earnest dialogue with everyone from fellow LGBT families and their allies to those who are staunchly opposed to his family's existence.
Jackie and Terry say they’re also excited about a new campaign he’s created called OUT TO DINNER, a dual advocacy/outreach project that aims to build relationships between same-sex couples and folks who are on the fence when it comes to LGBT rights. Straight ally couples host a dinner and invite a same-sex couple and an on-the-fence couple for a potluck-style meal. No politics, no religion—just food and friendship.
While Jackie and Terry are proud of many things, they say they are especially proud of the fact that Zach is making such a profound difference at the local, state, and even national/international levels.
“I’m proud of the entrepreneur in him who realized that there’s a tremendous opportunity both to give back the community, but also to do it in a way that was financially rewarding for himself as well,” Terry says.
Where do they see Zach making the biggest impact?
“I’m sure that video, with 18 million views, had a big impact on the percentage of Americans who are in favor of same-sex marriage, and that it has accelerated the velocity of change,” Terry says. “And the book has the potential to continue that acceleration.”
“And people who may not have thought about it before maybe think more of it now and have an opinion,” Jackie adds.
What does the future hold for Zach? Starring in a movie based on his book? More publishing? Attending graduate school?
Even though he’s taking a sabbatical from his studies, both moms are hopeful that he'll return to the UI campus in 2013, adding it would be nice to have both of their children on campus. Ultimately, his parents imagine him moving into the realm of politics.
“I’m very glad to see that he thinks deeply about politics,” Terry says. “I do think Zach will be having lunch or breakfast with Barack and Michelle.”
Like most parents, they still worry about their son and feel protective of him. Due to his intense travel schedule, they get to see him only once or twice a month on average. They worry about the stress of his schedule and the demands on his time.
“I want him to be healthy because I did worry, and I do worry, about people hurting him or using him,” Jackie says.
Zach is still involved with several businesses he’s founded, including several sustainability businesses and an education/tutoring business.
They miss him while he’s on the road, but they both plan to be in the audience when he reads at the Iowa City Book Festival July 14, and are grateful for another opportunity to see their son share their story.
“Whatever he does, we know he’ll be successful,” Terry says.
“He’s really well rounded,” Jackie adds. “He’s just a nice person, and he’s really stayed grounded through all this.”