3 Eulogies Delivered at St. Joseph Church in Baltimore, MD on 2019.03.18.
1. by John D. Rockefeller V
I first met Ralph through a mutual friend, John Sprague, at the Maryland Open in 2010. John knew I had been giving my son, John, chess lessons ever since he turned 2; so, he said I had to meet this other Dad who was doing the same thing with his son, Kevin. When Ralph told me that he was a Fide Master and that his wife, Annett, had been the top Under 16 girl in the former East Germany, I joked that John would never be able to catch up because of Kevin’s insurmountable advantage: in-utero chess training. John and Kevin soon became friends, hanging out at tournaments and going to each other’s birthday parties. When Ralph first invited John to 1 of Kevin’s birthday parties, he made it very clear that I should understand what we were agreeing to. Ralph warned me that I wasn’t being invited to some typical American birthday party that lasts only 2 hours; no, we had been extended a European invitation—which meant we should count on being at the Zimmers’ all afternoon and most of the evening. The other thing I remember learning that day during my first visit to the Zimmers’ house, was that Ralph put hot sauce on everything. According to Ralph, there wasn’t anything that didn’t taste better with hot sauce.
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Ralph was a character who, truth be told, could be just a bit braggadocious. He enjoyed telling stories about having been hired to teach the Oscar-winning Ben Kingsley how to play chess. (Kinglsey played Josh Waitzkin’s chess coach, Bruce Pandolfini, in Searching for Bobby Fischer ). Ralph said he paid for 2 semesters at Rutgers University with that paycheck—but that he should have accepted the director’s offer to have a brief speaking part, because then he would have made even more in royalties. (Ralph is 1 of the silent extras in a scene set in Washington Square Park.) Ralph once told me that no matter how hard I worked at yoga, I wasn’t actually working out, because I wasn’t doing his workout. That is, I wasn’t drenched in sweat on a StairMaster in the gym practically in his backyard. And of course, there were all the times he told me how much better Germany’s Bundesliga was than anything in the States. Eventually I tried my hand at some counterplay by saying that Europe had nothing over the US’s scholastic chess scene—in particular, SuperNationals, the Olympics of scholastic chess. (Once every 4 years US Chess’s spring national scholastic championships are combined into 1 supersized tournament.) “You’ve never seen anything like it”, I told Ralph—which, of course, led him to remind me yet again that he had played in the Bundesliga. In 2013 Ralph decided to check out SuperNationals in Nashville, Tennessee. As our 2 families were standing outside the closed doors of Delta Concourses A-D, ready to enter the event’s largest tournament room, Ralph and I couldn’t resist playing out our routine 1 last time: “Ralph, trust me: you’ve never seen anything like this. John, I played in the Bundesliga”. I took enormous pleasure after Ralph’s jaw nearly dropped to the floor when he actually saw inside the tournament room. There were players as far as the eye could see—more than 3,000. The room was so big and so full of players, you couldn’t make out any of the players at the far end of the room; you could see only that at some point far off in the horizon the rows and rows of players just dissipated into a blur of anonymity.
Ralph offset his occasional lapse into braggadocio by having a great sense of humor about himself. His self-deprecatory touch was quite charming. Last year Kevin became the K-5 co-champion at the 2018 MD Elementary-School Chess Championships. During the crucial final round, Kevin nonchalantly got up from his board and walked around to look at other games. Watching his son from far away in the skittles room, Ralph said to me, “Who does that guy think he is?: walking around as if he’s got it all wrapped up’”. Ralph realized the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree... 2 months later, when Ralph became Maryland’s state champion at the Maryland Open, he joked, “Not even cancer can hold me back”.
Ralph was an excellent coach. I remember him analyzing 1 of my games, in particular, from 1 of the MD Opens. Because I was in the unfamiliar position of being up against a stronger player, I decided to trade my rooks for my opponent’s queen. Even though that exchange cost me some material, it helped me secure the win and was driven by my fear of somehow letting my opponent back in the game. Ralph countered, “I understand why you did it, but that wasn’t your best move. Always make the best possible move.” Next you’ll hear from Pieter Heesters’s Dad, Kees. Pieter became the youngest player ever to win the Maryland Sweet 16 and to earn a full, 4-year scholarship to UMBC—as a 6th grader. I remember when Ralph first met Pieter at that same SuperNationals in 2013. Ralph began his coaching relationship with Pieter not by telling Pieter which moves to make, but by asking him to explain why he had decided to make his moves—gently guiding Pieter to find better moves. Ralph showed the same gentle touch when Vinny Tramontana and I visited him at St. Joe’s Hospital. Of course, Ralph had a chess set with him, and of course he wanted Vinny and I to play against each other, as it gave him 1 more opportunity to guide me through the many weaknesses in my French Defense. Now that Ralph has passed, I know what will be my next “’best possible move’”: organizing the Ralph P. Zimmer Memorial next year.
I want to conclude by saying a few words about Ralph as a Dad—specifically as a chess coach to his kids. Ralph was adamant about not pushing Kevin and Heidi too hard. He wanted to let them go their own pace. He never made them practice; instead, he would just leave an interesting position on the board for them to catch a glimpse of, as they passed by—just in case it struck their curiosity. He said frequently that the main reason he hadn’t become an International Master or Grandmaster was that he had quit chess several times over the years and that it had always taken him months just to get back to where he left off. He didn’t want his kids to quit chess, so he didn’t push it on them. He wanted them to come to the game only if and when the time was right for them. As Kevin grew more fond of soccer than of chess, Ralph would tell him: “Just remember, though, you’ll never be as good at soccer as you already are in chess”. (Several weeks ago, after 8 months of chess inactivity, Kevin beat a player rated 1726.) So, Kevin and Heidi, please follow your Dad’s advice: if and when it feels right to you, play chess. As you grow older and some of your memories of your Dad naturally start to fade, know that you can reconnect with your Dad through chess. You can remember your special relationship with your Dad through chess. It will always be there, waiting for you.
2. by Kees Heesters
When you get older you become more and more aware that there is lots of wisdom in clichés. My mother used to annoy us by repeatedly saying: “Life goes by so fast.” It does. My father would say : “Life is unpredictable.” Growing up in the Netherlands I never thought I would find myself in the Gaylord Hotel in Tennessee accompanying my son, Pieter, to a chess tournament. Let alone that I would meet a police officer there from Baltimore city, who spent lots of time in Europe, was married to a German and was an avid chess player. But I did.
I actually remember it pretty well. Ralph was short, stout, sympathetically balding and had a good smile. John knew I was looking for a new coach for my son and thought we should talk. I still have a picture of Ralph going over a game with Pieter. I swear I can still hear him say “that is a very committal move” “Why move that pawn out before you know where your knight is going?” We started talking about him becoming his coach. He did and I am very glad he did.
Over the years. Ralph and Pieter have spent many hours going over openings and games. Ralph was a very good teacher. He was always encouraging, but honest. Willing to go over the basics of openings and explain them (again and again). Generously sharing his experience and knowledge. Looking at games he was not afraid to say when moves were bad or just, well, baffling. But as someone who has been there, never in a tone that was off putting. “Everybody blunders, we all have been there.” I did sometimes wonder about his abiding and serious love for the game. Why would a man with a job and family spend so much time on a game? But when you saw him in tournaments or coaching, there was no question. This is part of what he was meant to do. I can still hear him say:“Why not move the rook to the center now? Pressure. Pressure.” Whatever success my son might have had in chess can in no small measure be contributed to Ralph. He was a good coach and chess player.
Coming over to the Zimmer’s house meant that you were always welcomed. Both Ralph and Annett have a great gift for hospitality. They like people and they like making them feel at home. It was good to get to know Ralph outside chess. When we started to talk about him becoming Pieter’s coach he sent me a letter of introduction and a resume. I thought it was a little much at first. Later I came to realize that he partly wanted to make the case for himself, sure, but also that he wanted me to have the information I needed to make a good decision. This very much characterized the man. Over the years I have come to know Ralph as a thoroughly decent man. He was not out to take advantage of anybody. He wanted to do right by people, and he did. He was a good man.
In our unpredictable life, we meet many people randomly and fleetingly. Most of them we forget. Some of our encounters are a fortunate stroke of serendipity. There are a few that become part of your life. After I spoke to Ralph the last time I felt grateful. Grateful for the time with him and grateful to have known him. He never got the chance to tell me everything about his chess adventures with his mom in Europe. I am afraid Annett you will have to tell me one day.
I am very grateful for everything he did for us. He was a good, decent and generous man whom I was honored to call my friend.
Rest in peace, my friend.
3. by Vincent Tramontana
Today we say goodbye to the son of Mike Zimmer and Mireille Rubert.
The husband of Annett Zimmer.
The Father of Kevin and Heidi Zimmer.
Today we say goodbye to our friend, Ralph Zimmer
While Ralph left us much too soon, I think he would want everyone to know that he did not waste the time he did have. Ralph saw more in his 48 years then most could in two lifetimes.
Ralph had three true loves in his life. His first he found as a young boy. A planned soccer career that was not heading in the right direction lead him to the chess board. If you know Ralph, you know he could not go a day without chess. His love of the game and his incredible talent for it took him all over the world.
France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, The Check Republic, Hungry, Holland, Russia, Spain, Belgium, Luxemburg, Canada, and all across the Great USA.
Two chess tournaments in particular I would like to tell you about.
The first was in 1992. Ralph was a student at Rutgers University at the time. He was at a multi-day chess tournament with his college friends and after the first day ended he did what all college kids do on a Saturday night. He got drunk with his friends.
The next day they all woke up with terrible hangovers and headed over to the hall to see the chess pairings for the day. His friend Dave walks over to the wall where the pairings where posted and laughs. He looks back at Ralph and tells him he might as well go back to bed, no need to prepare. Ralph was paired against Grand Master Joel Benjamin. Joel Benjamin was not only a grandmaster, he was not only considered the strongest player at the torment. Grandmaster Benjamin was a US chess champion and considered one of the strongest players in the country.
Ralph did go back to his room. But he didn’t go to sleep. Ralph was not the type of person to let an opportunity like this go by without giving it 100%. He prepared for hours to give Grandmaster Benjamin the best fight he could.
Ralph was exhausted when the game started, but 56 moves later, Grandmaster Benjamin resigned.
That was a trend. If Ralph really wanted something, nothing could stand in his way.
The Second tournament I would like to tell you about was probably the most important one he would play his whole life.
The year was 1995, the torment was in Schwaebish Gmuend (SHWAY-BISH GA-MOOND), Germany.
I couldn’t tell you how many games Ralph won.
I couldn’t tell you if he played a famous Grandmaster.
Too be honest, I can’t tell you anything about the actual tournament.
What I can tell you is this is where Ralph met -Annette Truhn.
Annette, also an accomplished chess player, was at the board in the middle of a game when Ralph noticed her. He stalked the board waiting for an opportunity, any opportunity. And when the opportunity finally presented itself Ralph introduced himself and gave her his number offering her chess lessons.
Of course he did, what young girl wouldn’t swoon over the prospect of chess lessons.
But, somehow it worked. Annette picked up the phone and made the call that would change both their lives forever.
Ralph and Annette got married in 1999.
And with that, Ralph found his second life love. The love he had for his family.
They had two wonderful children. Kevin and Heidi, who Ralph was incredibly proud of. Whether it was watching Kevin play chess or soccer, or watching Heidi do gymnastic or twirl like a princess. Nothing brought him more joy or make him smile bigger than just horsing around with his kids.
After college Ralph moved back to Germany and took a job at the world bank. But this was not his dream. So after a few years, Ralph called me and asked if I knew of a place he could stay in the States while he looked for work. He was determined to get a job in law enforcement, but he needed to get to the States to really get his search going. I told him I didn’t have much, but whatever I had was his. He could stay with me as long as he needed. Ralph came with a suitcase, a blow up mattress and the determination he carried with him his whole life.
Every day he would comb the papers, check the internet and physically visit every police department he could find. Every night he would go out for a run, preparing himself for a physical he didn’t even know he would take. A month turned to two, turned to six, but Ralph never gave up. He knew somewhere out there, there was a place for him.
That’s when he found the Baltimore Police Department the third love of his life. It all happened so fast, One day he was living with me, the next he was off on a new adventure in Baltimore. I think he had two days to find a place to live, change his license, register his car and attend his first day at the Police Academy. I remember helping him pack his car, a couple of suitcases, an air mattress and not a doubt in my mind that my friend would do fine.
Ralph had many roles in the department and he loved every one of them.
The department also gave Ralph the chance to try something new and live out his dream. I am sure most of you are aware that Ralph was also an attorney, which he achieved through a program provided by the Baltimore Police Department. He was always grateful of the opportunities given to him by Baltimore, But Ralph was never going to be a full time Lawyer.
Ralph had found The Baltimore Police Department and there was no way he was going to trade his life on the force for a stuffy desk in an office building no matter the money or prestige it would bring. Ralph would always tell me proudly how he belonged to the biggest gang in Baltimore. He loved the work, he loved the city, he loved his brothers and sisters in the force, and he especially loved his wide loads.
In Ralph’s short time he fit two lifetimes of adventures.
It’s impossible to capture who Ralph was in a few minutes,
I am honored that I had the privilege to call him friend.
We will miss our friend Ralph.