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Organ donor to be honored on Rose Parade float

Organ donor to be honored on Rose Parade float
Brian Koontz applies the eyebrows to a tribute to his best friend, Tom Zech, that will be used during the 2016 Rose Parade. (DREW A. KELLEY, / CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER)

Tom Zech loved the outdoors and riding, especially motorcycles and quads, also known as all-terrain vehicles.

He twice joined A Ride Across America on its cross-country journeys, which included visits to hospitals as part of the nonprofit group's promotion of organ donation.

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The Huntington Beach resident also loved giving, and after he died suddenly of an asthma attack in September 2013, he gave what his brother-in-law considered "the ultimate gift" — his organs.

Zech will be taking his final ride for organ donation in the form of one of 60 floragraphs aboard Donate Life's float in the Rose Parade in Pasadena on New Year's Day. A floragraph is a representation of a portrait made out of items like flowers and spices.

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"It's fitting that that be done, because he was so adventurous and he was always looking into different modes of transportation with ATVs and motorcycles," said Kevin Monroe, Zech's brother-in-law and the creator of A Ride Across America.

"Of course, being on a float, he would have loved that. He lived for the outdoors. He loved camping, and he wasn't having a good time if he wasn't caked in dirt. The more dirt-covered he was, the more fun time he had. He lived a full life in the short time he was around."

The idea for A Ride Across America emerged after Kevin Monroe had given his brother, Elliott Monroe, a kidney. The transplant failed and Elliott died, but Kevin wanted to keep alive the memory of his brother. Zech was all in.

Zech will be the only person from Orange County represented in a floragraph on the float, organizers said.

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He was selected by a committee from Dignity Memorial, a network of funeral homes and cemeteries throughout the country.

"We read about Tom and we really liked what we had read," said Tiffany Gallarzo, a committee member and vice president of family service at Fairhaven Memorial Park & Mortuary in Santa Ana. "We met his family and found out many more things about him that made him such an obvious choice for this. His dedication to A Ride Across America really stood out to us."

Last month, three of Zech's four children and his wife, as well as other family members and friends, gathered at Westminster Memorial Park, where Zech is buried, to put the final touches on his floragraph — his eyebrows. The rest of the floragraph had largely been completed by professionals.

"It was a little hard to put it together," said his wife, Jean Zech. "I was the first one that started doing the eyebrow part on the floragraph, and then everyone else participated. I did it for him. I try to have a positive mind and try not to dwell on being upset."

She described her husband as a hard-working family man who was always willing to help others and said she was proud of his willingness to donate his organs, which she estimates has saved more than 40 lives. Kevin Monroe added that Zech's lungs and trachea were donated for research purposes so doctors could study asthma.

"I'm so glad they're honoring him," Jean Zech said of Donate Life. "I feel honored just being his wife and knowing they chose him. He saved people's lives. Even though it's bittersweet for us because he's not here any longer, we know that he helped other families that had to deal with sicknesses.

"Most of them hopefully are still doing fine having the organs they got from Tom. Sure, I would like to have him here, but he was always giving, and in the end, he continued giving."

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