Employees of the Cousins Center or former residents of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary would recognize the sound of Robert Zweber walking through the building by the sound of his keys clanging against his hip.
With seemingly every key to every lock, he walks at such a rapid pace it’s not unusual to hear Zweber before you see him.
While the sound of his keys ringing in the hallway is instantly noticeable to those around him, it’s one that Zweber, even after 45 years of service to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, has never heard himself.
When he was 3 months old he contracted a fever of almost 105 degrees and permanently lost his hearing.
Perhaps one of the people working in the archdiocese who knows Zweber the best is Fr. Christopher Klusman, associate pastor at St. Roman Parish, Milwaukee, and director of the archdiocesean Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministry, who is partially deaf.
“A lot of times people aren’t sure how to relate to us,” Fr. Klusman said about deaf people. “We have a deaf culture. It would be like if I’m the only Spanish person or African person in a different culture.”
As a seminarian at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, Fr. Klusman had lunch with Zweber every Wednesday.
“Robert and I, we just click,” he said. “We just know. We don’t have to explain. We don’t have to educate. All we have to do is just say something and it’s like, ‘I know what you mean.’”
Zweber and his wife Pat attend Mass at St. Matthias Parish, Milwaukee, and occasionally go to the Mass for the deaf celebrated by Fr. Klusman.
Their most comfortable way of communicating with each other is through sign language. But most of the time,Zweber communicates with those who don’t know sign language by writing notes on a notepad he keeps in his right breast pocket.
“I admire him for being open to that,” Fr. Klusman said. “But at times he wants other people to learn sign language so that they can communicate with him rather than just writing back and forth.”
This interview with the Catholic Herald was conducted using a notepad. Questions were posed on paper and Zweber wrote out his answers. During the interview, Zweber took his time reading the questions and occasionally, while in the middle of an answer, would look up from the notebook, stare at a blank space in the air and with one hand sign to himself, as if he was thinking out loud. Then he would continue writing.
Zweber began attending St. John’s School for the Deaf, Milwaukee, when he was 3 years old, eventually living in the dorms and socializing with the other students. He also became a Boy Scout.
In 1969, he began working at the school as a 16-year-old, part-time maintenance worker. Zweber continued to work at the school until it closed in 1983.
In 1970, Zweber went to a workshop for the deaf in Washington, D.C. at a Holiday Inn. There he met his future wife Pat, who was partially deaf. Her parents were unable to afford to send her to St. John’s School for the Deaf so Zweber said he taught her sign language.
Two years later, in August 1972, the couple was married in the chapel of St. John.
After the school closed, Zweber worked at other archdiocesan facilities until he was assigned to the Cousins Center and Saint Francis de Sales Seminary in 1993 where he worked part-time at each location.
“At the seminary, some of the staff that worked with Robert took sign language classes with me so that they could learn to communicate with Robert,” Fr. Klusman said, adding he taught them simple phrases like “hello,” “thank you,” and “how are you?”
“That can make a big difference in Robert’s day,” Fr. Klusman said.
In his spare time, Zweber enjoys cheering for the Packers, especially his favorite players — Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews. He and his wife have two sons, Bert and Perry, who are each married and have children.
When asked if he enjoys being a grandfather, a smile crossed Zweber’s face and he quickly turned on his cell phone, which he uses for text messaging, and proudly showed off pictures of his grandchildren.
While he’s working, he’s constantly in motion, traveling from room to room with whatever equipment he needs, often doing more than is asked of him.
“He really cares about a lot of people,” Fr. Klusman said. “He goes out of his way to help a lot of people.”
In 2011, he began working full-time at the Cousins Center where he set up equipment for events, made sure the hallways were clean and did small repair work.
Fr. Klusman calls him the “blue bunny.” Blue, for the color of his maintenance uniform and bunny, like the Energizer Bunny.
“When you see Robert, if you blink you might not see him again,” he said. “This guy has worked here for over 45 years and you would think he would be achy and old and slow and weak, but he acts like an 18 year-old.”
Zweber, who retired March 31, said he hopes to travel, spend time with his grandkids and continue to cheer on the Packers.
“I’m sad that he’s retiring,” Fr. Klusman said. “But I’m happy he can retire. He’s deserved it.”