Ruth and Leo Zanger don’t star in their own reality TV show. But if they did, there would surely be no shortage of drama to fill an hour-long weekly time slot. You see, this couple – who have been married since 1956 – have now racked up more than 100 grandchildren.
It is perhaps fitting that Leo Zanger runs his own realtor business. Trade within the family alone might ensure the company never goes bust. As he joked to the Herald-Whig in April 2015, “We could start our own town.” And with a family extended as far as his, he’s not far wrong.
Indeed, there are some towns whose populations are absolutely minuscule. Take Monowi in Nebraska for example. It was founded in 1902 and its population grew to around 150 during the 1930s.
As with many small towns in the region, however, younger generations eventually moved away to larger cities. By the year 2000 the town’s population had dwindled to just two – made up of Rudy Eiler and his wife Elsie. And when Rudy passed in 2014 only Elsie remained.
Living such a solitary life can have its benefits. As the sole inhabitant of the town, Elsie is also its mayor. As such, she has the authority to issue herself a liquor license. And any taxes due return to her own pocket. Naturally, Leo Zanger’s family far outnumbers this tiny town.
In fact, Leo’s family members are almost equal to the population of the South Dakota town of Interior. Located on the fringes of Badlands National Park, the town is a convenient bolthole for exploring the parklands. As of 2016 its population was estimated to be 104. Just large enough, then, for the entire Zanger family.
One must wonder if 83-year-old Leo could have known what was to come when he first met Ruth Kuhn? Following an introduction via his brother Dale and Ruth’s sister Rosie, the couple married on April 18, 1956. And, settling in Quincy, Illinois, they wasted no time starting their family.
The newlyweds welcomed their first daughter, Linda, later that same year. But Leo and Ruth weren’t content with one child. So the family grew again. And then kept growing… and growing… and growing. And it continued to grow until the next generation of Zangers was 12-strong.
After Linda came Greg, Debbie, Donna, Steve, Mike, Matt, Chuck, David, Daniel and Ernie. And by 1984 the couple had welcomed their own last addition to their clan, Joe. But the expansion of the family was far from finished.
In fact, by the time Joe arrived, Leo and Ruth’s older kids had already started having children of their own. So when their youngest son arrived, he was already an uncle. He actually had ten nieces and nephews that were older than he was!
A family of 12 children might invoke images of utter chaos for some. And as son Daniel admitted to the Herald-Whig in April 2015, “It’s a very busy family. [But] we enjoy being around each other. There’s never a dull moment. We always had a lot of fun growing up.”
Not only was their childhood a lot of fun then, but there was apparently no shortage of support either. Indeed, as each child grew into an adult, they would obviously need means to support themselves financially. And as luck would have it, there was a ready-made opportunity.
As the owner of a real estate business, Leo was in a position to offer jobs to his children. It was an offer that many of them took up. In fact, once some of them had the opportunity, they didn’t let it go. And a number of them still work at Zander & Associates, Inc. to this day.
As the kids grew up, the Zanger family continued to add members. In 1975 Linda delivered Leo and Ruth’s first grandchild, Jeannine. It was a big moment for the family. And with 11 other siblings, it was just the beginning.
From there, things got a whole lot more chaotic. All 12 Zanger children ended up starting families of their own. And while Jeannine was Leo and Ruth’s first grandchild, there was many more to come.
And then, as the grandchildren themselves reached maturity, they also started their own families. So now Ruth and Leo had started to add great-grandchildren to the tally. And in 2015 Ruth and Leo celebrated the birth of their 100th descendant.
As Leo described to the Herald-Whig, “The good Lord has just kept sending them. We could start our own town.” In fact, by that time, he and Ruth had enjoyed welcoming 53 grandchildren, 46 great-grandkids, and even one great-great-grandchild to the fold.
It is certainly an impressive headcount to keep track of. And it’s daughter Donna who does just that. Every new addition to the family, whether it be in birth or marriage, Donna keeps a record of it.
Unsurprisingly, it’s easy to lose count of all the new arrivals. In fact, it was only due to Donna’s diligence that the milestone of Leo and Ruth’s 100th grandchild didn’t pass unnoticed. Born on April 8, 2015, great-grandson Jaxton Leo Zanger was a heck of a 59th anniversary present for the proud couple.
Jaxton was born to grandson Austin – in turn the son of Daniel – and his wife Ashleigh. Austin told the Herald-Whig, “We didn’t even know until Donna and Kelly figured it out and told us about three months along. It’s pretty special – 100 grandkids, that’s a big deal.”
It’s an accolade that Ashleigh holds with immense pride. “I feel a little extra special,” she told NBC in May 2015. However, Austin and Ashleigh’s proud moment didn’t come without some tough competition.
You see, Jaxton wasn’t the only baby due around that time. Indeed, another baby in the family was expected around March, and so the race was on for the prestigious accolade. It turned into what Leo describes as a “fun little competition.”
Keeping track of and letting family members know of get-togethers might seem like an arduous task. But it’s a job that Donna relishes. She told Herald-Whig, “[Other family members] always say, ‘Since you already have all of the phone numbers, can you just text or call them and let them know about whatever the event is?’”
But that’s not to say that other family members don’t keep a more personal archive of memories from their own experience. Leo, for example, is able to recall moments from early in the family story. As he described to NBC, “Donna was born during the snowstorm from hell [in January 1962].”
Indeed, that year the Illinois winter seems to have been an incredibly cold one. Although it doesn’t feature among Chicago’s worst ever snow storms, there was a distinct chill in the air. In fact, the average temperature for the month was 17°F, with a minimum recorded at a biting -15°F.
But, whatever the weather, there’s no such thing as a small family gathering for the Zangers. Although, even when they do keep things low-key – with just Mom Ruth, Dad Leo, and all the kids – numbers head well into double figures. Especially when taking spouses into account.
And with most family members still residing in Quincy, there’s little excuse to not show up for organized gatherings. Not that it’s a chore. The family professes to being incredibly close, and their not-so-small gang is a great source of pride for all of the Zangers.
Such events where first-generation Zanger offspring and their other halves are required to make an appearance include Easter, Mother and Father’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is, however, far from an exhaustive list. Indeed, the family needs little encouragement to regroup.
“We’re all really close. We get together a lot,” Austin revealed to Uplifting Today. “There’s always a lot of interaction. We spend a lot of time with each other. I know there are a lot of families half of our size who only get together maybe once or twice a year.”
Gatherings, though, can pose logistical challenges. You see, despite numbers heading comfortably into a couple of dozen, smaller family get-togethers can be held at someone’s home. But sometimes the entire family is expected to make an appearance – grandkids and all.
Such occasions call for far more drastic arrangements to be made. It’s perhaps no surprise that no one among the family’s ranks has a home large enough to host 100 people. So instead, it’s necessary to hire the local church hall.
And of course there are a lot of mouths to feed. Indeed, not only do tables need to seat 100, they also have to support ten turkeys and 50 pounds of ham. And yet such gatherings have been well-honed over the years and are executed in an orderly fashion.
“Everyone takes their turn [in helping with food], and they all try and outdo each other,” Donna explained to the Herald-Whig. “We are always getting together for something.” But although she insists it’s always a good time, the prospect can be daunting for some.
Partners entering the family may need time to adapt. Not that it’s an uncomfortable adjustment to make, however. Kelly – Jaxton’s grandmother and wife of Daniel since 1991 – told NBC, “I came from a small family.” But the change wasn’t overwhelming. She added, “It’s always fun.”
And there are practical challenges to entering such a large family, too. As Ashleigh explained, “It took a while for me to learn everyone’s name – and remember them.” Once that hurdle is cleared, however, the benefits of having a vast support network are abundant.
In times of need, there’s no shortage of people willing to help. “And there’s a Zanger in just about every field,” Austin proudly stated to NBC. But although siblings are known to bicker and squabble, gatherings tend to pass harmoniously, with no major disagreements.
As Donna explained to Babble in 2015, “We don’t have issues with sibling rivalry because our parents encouraged us to work things out and be close. And now all the younger cousins hang out too. They go to school together, they’re on the same ball teams.”
And with new additions continuing to arrive in the family, the number grew even further in 2018. Indeed, the count has now reached 102 grandchildren for Leo and Ruth. But the sheer number of descendants doesn’t appear to phase the great-great-grandfather in the slightest.
“Birth is a miracle and to have a new one is just a wonderful thing,” Leo told Today in May 2015. Indeed, each new addition is as welcome as the first. And with great-grandkids only just beginning their own families, there’s little doubt that the tally will grow still further.
It might be easy for anyone to feel lost in a family so large. But the bond that permeates the Zanger family is clearly a strong one, that runs directly down from the top with Ruth and Leo. And however many grandchildren they end up welcoming, surely no one will ever be forgotten along the way.