IRONWOOD - Only 36 years old and already a legend, Rheba Mabie Zimmerman was recently named the 2014 Stormy Kromer Living Legend.
Zimmerman's story of living a full, active life despite fighting multiple sclerosis drew the support of online voters on the Stormy Kromer website.
Nominations were accepted last October and after company officials selected 10 nominees for the ballot in November, voting took place through Dec. 20.
"I am so excited that Rheba is our 2014 Living Legend," said Gina Thorsen, Stormy Kromer vice-president of marketing and sales. "She's young and vibrant, and at the same time, she has a lifetime of gifts to offer."
Zimmerman, who grew up in Boulder Junction, Wis., lives in Wausau, and is going to veterinarian school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She chose the UW School of Veterinarian Medicine as her choice to receive the Living Legend grand prize of 3 percent of Stormy Kromer sales from Jan. 7-31. Zimmerman also received a $500 Stormy Kromer gift certificate.
"I am thrilled to have this award, but I really do need to share it with my brother, Hammie," said Zimmerman. "I watched him grow up struggling against total physical and mental disability. I watched him fight just to breathe and to do things the rest of us so carelessly take for granted. He inspired me to do the most with what I've been given."
Zimmerman has kept herself busy coaching and teaching others all sorts of things. Besides being a U.S. Golf Association National Team member and Wisconsin Golfer of the Year, she's taught science and agriculture, as well as tap dance and figure skating, and has coached curling and helped show the No. 1 old English sheep dog at the Westminster Dog Show multiple times.
Besides pursuing her dream of becoming a veterinarian, she's also a professional clown, size 20 shoes and all.
Zimmerman said she has done all this because she knows life is too short to miss out.
When she was a sophomore in college, she developed a bout of double-vision that lasted several months. It forced her off the golf team, and as it grew worse and stole her ability to read or study,forced her out of college. It took more than a year to diagnose the problem, and when she learned she had MS, it was somewhat of a relief.
"My disease had a name, and that meant I could face it," said Zimmerman, who's lost and regained the use of her extremities and suffered numbness in every part of her body at one point or another. "I was very scared, though, because you only hear of the worst cases. But I did my research, and now I do everything I can to reduce other people's fears."
Zimmerman became a national patient advocate, speaking around the country and meeting with many others with MS one-on-one.
"It made me more outgoing," she said. "I was always the quiet one, which is why it was such a surprise - even to me - that I ended up in clown school. It's a long story, but the short version is that none of these things would have happened if I'd been healthy enough to stay in school. And I've learned that it's OK to be outgoing and to do silly things. I've learned to have confidence like never before."
Now, as Zimmerman studies to complete her dream of becoming a vet, she credits this confidence with getting her over her apprehension of heading back to school.
"I want to thank everybody for voting for me and for giving me this award. I want them to know that there are always doors open for them," she said. "There is always something positive waiting to happen."
Zimmerman said the prize money will "do a lot of good for animals in the Midwest."
She was nominated by her mother, Patricia Mabie, of Boulder Junction.
Stormy Kromer, created in 1903, was purchased by Jacquart Fabric Products of Ironwood in 2001. To learn more, visit stormykromer.com.