Dan Zignego took his faith, his family and his work seriously.
The longtime executive at the Waukesha roadbuilder Zignego Co. saw himself as a steward of the family business, acting as a mentor to others who would succeed him in running it. He was active in church, helping organize mission trips to Africa. And he was a die-hard deer hunter, making near-weekly trips to the family’s hunting grounds in Bowler to prepare for the next deer season.
But Dan Zignego never took himself too seriously.
“He had a very good, self-deprecating sense of humor,” said his nephew, Tony Zignego. “He loved to laugh, especially at himself.”
Dan Zignego, who was most recently secretary and treasurer at Zignego Co., died unexpectedly on Wednesday at the age of 62, from cardiac arrest. He spent his entire career at the contractor after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with an accounting degree in the early ’80s, and worked under his father, Vernon Zignego, and his uncle Leroy “Pete” Zignego, who founded the company in 1954.
His death came as a shock. Tony Zignego said he and other company executives were attending the last day of a conference in San Diego when they got the news. Dan stayed behind and gave a presentation at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Golden Shovel awards on Wednesday afternoon. He was working out on an exercise bike at home just before his wife found him unconscious. Tony Zignego said Dan was being treated for cancer, but it’s not clear if the illness contributed to his death.
Dan Zignego was an extrovert with a booming voice and contagious laugh who was typically the first to show up for work in the morning. He was also a regular at The Crossings Restaurant, a Waukesha diner a mile from the office, where he’d stop for lunch two or three times a week.
He served as a bridge between the company’s founders and the third generation of Zignego owners, becoming a mentor and father figure to those younger than he, Tony Zignego said. It was a mission Dan Zignego took on following the death of his own father, who died in his ’40s, shortly after Dan began working at the company.
But Dan Zignego wasn’t content to simply preside over the success of his own company. He also worked to advance his industry by serving on the boards of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, state advisory committees for laborers and concrete finishers and as chairman of the Laborers’ Committee.
“He’ll be remembered as a fierce advocate for transportation and for infrastructure,” Tony Zignego said. “He’ll be remembered as a devoted member of his parish and his church. But most importantly he’ll be remembered as a good man and a great husband.”
John Mielke, president of ABC of Wisconsin, also remembers Zignego as a strong advocate of deer hunting — a very particular kind of deer hunting.
Mielke would often join Dan Zignego in hunting trips on the Zignego family’s land near Bowler. The group of hunters would gather at a tavern near the property for a fish fry on Fridays. Dan made it a tradition to order an orange soda at the bar, and to abandon the hunt on Sunday morning to attend mass at a church in Wausau, an hour away.
He had strong opinions about how to conduct a successful deer hunt. Mielke earned his rebuke one year for not wearing rubber boots, which deer supposedly can’t smell, and for not wearing a green headlamp, which deer supposedly can’t see.
The next year, Mielke brought the rubber boots but left the green headlamp behind. Dan Zignego noticed and called him out. Mielke never forgot again.
“He had it down to a science,” Mielke said. “But it was his own science that nobody else could understand.”
Dan Zignego made his ideas about hunting well-known in the office, too. He would tell you where to plant corn and place trail cameras. He was a weather buff — before radar became common, he wpuld relay the forecast to roadbuilding crews in the morning. This knowledge would also be channeled into his deer hunting.
But all this preparation didn’t guarantee success, Tony Zignego said. People working in the office enjoyed reminding him of that.
“He got a kick out of things like that, when he was the butt of the joke,” Tony Zignego said.
Mielke said Dan Zignego was careful to temper his convictions with his sense of humor.
Mielke remembers him as a principled man who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and didn’t take his obligations lightly. Starting practically from when Mielke met him more than 25 years ago, Dan was a constant presence at ABC board meetings, events and other functions. He was a vocal advocate of the repeal of prevailing wage — a position that wasn’t popular among roadbuilders at the time.
“He stood up for the things he believed in, whether they were popular or not,” Mielke said. “He showed up when it came to virtually everything: faith, family, politics and deer hunting.”Follow @natebeck9