Carrie Rengers

‘I think she wants people to celebrate that they knew her’

Less than a month after selling Clifton Square, founder Jo Zakas died following heart surgery.
Less than a month after selling Clifton Square, founder Jo Zakas died following heart surgery. The Wichita Eagle

UPDATED – Last month, when Clifton Square founder Jo Zakas sold her 45-year-old center, she told Have You Heard? she had an aorta issue but was fine.

“It’s just a heart deal I need to get taken care of,” is how she put it to longtime friend Michele Foley Cocking last week.

Zakas’s final Facebook post before surgery Thursday indicates she knew how serious her situation was, though.

She shared a video that begins, “I dreamed I had an interview with God,” at 9:45 a.m. A short time later, she had surgery to remove an aneurysm from her aorta, but it burst, and Zakas died following surgery. She would have been 76 on Aug. 19.

“It’s just crushing,” says Cocking, who has “just known Jo forever.”

“She’s just been such a lightning rod for Wichita for so many years.”

Zakas was one of the founders of Happiness Plaza at 3555 E. Douglas and had a dress shop, Plaza Nine Ltd., there.

She was in her 20s and kept eyeing some houses across the street for a new retail venture. Zakas slowly began acquiring what became a collection of older houses, which she leased for numerous stores and restaurants over the years.

“She’s always been so fearless,” Cocking says.

That’s one word people used for her. Former Twigs owner Iven Kelley-Dobson says others used another word unfairly.

He was going to manage a store at Clifton Square when he first met Zakas.

“This is the honest-to-God truth. I sit down, and I looked at Jo, and I said, ‘Jo, I heard you can be a real ....., but I think we will get along marvelously.’”

And they did, Kelley-Dobson says.

“She was very understanding.”

In addition to wanting Clifton Square to succeed, Kelley-Dobson says, “She wanted us to succeed.”

Kelley-Dobson says Zakas had a reputation for being tough because she was a woman.

“Because she was a very savvy woman and that was just how people perceived savvy businesswomen. Because in the ’80s – you hate to say it – but it was a man’s world.”

Cocking says, “It never crossed her mind that because she’s a woman she couldn’t accomplish things.”

Though she sold Clifton Square, Zakas still had the Clifton Square Foundation to benefit children in need, and she still owned Artist Central Studios & Gallery.

“She was an asset to the community,” Kelley-Dobson says.

Janice Brown, Zakas’ assistant, says she saw a side of Zakas a lot of business people didn’t see.

“I get to see more the real Jo. The flair. The personality. She definitely was one of a kind.”

Brown says Zakas told her she was the first woman on the state banking commission.

“I consider her kind of a trailblazer as far as women in business in Wichita,” she says.

“She didn’t let things stop her when she had her mind set on something,” Brown says.

GreenAcres Market owner Barbara Hoffmann knew Zakas for 35 years and was with her for her surgery.

“Jo’s bigger than life, and she thought she could beat it, and it just didn’t happen that way.”

Hoffmann, who says she’s heartbroken, wasn’t surprised at her friend’s final Facebook post.

“Jo was so in tune with just her intuition and in tune with life. She was a realist.”

Hoffmann says Zakas, who was from the Saint Joseph, Mo., area, was the ninth of 17 children. She says Zakas left home at age 13 to live with her grandmother.

“She’s always had to look out for herself.”

She says Zakas made it clear she didn’t want a funeral or memorial if something should happen.

“She was always just up, and I don’t think she wants people mourning. I think she wants people to celebrate that they knew her.”

Carrie Rengers: 316-268-6340, @CarrieRengers