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From the Netherlands to Napa: A teacher, therapist and donut lady touched lives

From the Netherlands to Napa: A teacher, therapist and donut lady touched lives

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Hank Zwetsloot calls meeting the love of his life, Yoka, the “luck of the draw.” Which it truly was.

Yoka Zwetsloot came to Napa from the Netherlands and made an impact on all she met. In her 81 years, she went from being an immigrant housewife with five children (one child died not long after birth) to winning a world record in a bench press competition, participating in numerous marathons, teaching aerobics and adaptive physical education, performing massage therapy and being an impressive bread baker.

Yoka passed away in June 2020. As they prepare a celebration of her life one year later, Hank Zwetsloot, and granddaughter, Erika Cole, reminisced with The Napa Register about Yoka.

Yoka and Hank met in the Netherlands. “We were in a ballroom dancing class in December,” said Hank. “Everyone drew names to buy a small Christmas gift for someone else in the class.”

After drawing his sister’s name, Hank was relieved when his friend asked if he could be the one to buy the sister a present. The next name Hank drew was for Yoka.

“It was a large class, about 70 people, and I didn’t know who she was. But I found her.”

The couple went on a total of two dates, one to the movies and one to Yoka’s employer’s company function before Hank’s family moved to America.

“We met in December ’57 and I left in February 1958. We wrote letters to each other for four years.”

Erika interjected that Hank had saved a big box of letters between her grandparents, but her grandfather wouldn’t translate them.

“He says that the Dutch wouldn’t translate,” she said and chuckled. “We think he doesn’t want us to know what’s in the love letters.”

Hank joined the U.S. Navy. In 1959, he convinced his commanding officer to let him go to Europe on leave. He made a beeline to Yoka but only had enough money for a four-night hotel stay. Yoka persuaded her father to let the American sailor stay at her house.

“I slept in the living room and no matter what time I awakened, her father was sitting there, watching me, protecting his daughter. After two weeks, I made up my mind and proposed.”

He still had two years’ enlistment remaining. In 1960, after conquering a years’ worth of immigration paperwork, Yoka left her family and everything she’d known in Holland and came to America.

“My ship had just set sail for Hawaii when she arrived. My father picked her up in Napa and she flew to Hawaii to see me.”

Hank called Yuka “determined but fearful; gutsy but not brave.” She lived with her future in-laws until Hank returned home and they married on July l, 1961.

Five children soon followed, although their first child died of a heart defect. Hank worked at Barwick-Dutton’s in Napa as an office equipment technician. Yoka sang in the church choir.

When they were in their 30’s, Hank made a comment that changed her life course.

“I told her she was getting ‘broad in the beam.’ It’s a navy term.”

Erika spoke up, “So, it was a technical phrase, not an insult?”

Hank laughed. “That’s when Yoka got serious,” he explained. “She gave up cigarettes, started going to college, taking classes, and working out. She began running and enjoyed it.”

She joined the Napa Valley College team and, even in her 30s, was a star runner. She built on that strength well into her mid-70s.

“Yuka had a big circle of friends and we all encouraged her when she ran marathons. The kids and grandkids would ride their bicycles part of the way with her when she ran the Napa Marathon.”

“Running was her therapy,” Hank said. “She would run to Skyline Park to the lake there and would cry out to God. That’s how she got through hard times.”

By then, Hank worked at Mare Island and had completed his college degree in industrial engineering. Yoka graduated from Sonoma State in 1985. She got her teaching credential and went on to also become a certified massage professional. Yoka taught aerobics and adaptive P.E. at Napa Valley College to students, seniors, and police cadets.

Yoka started weight training with a local coach who had been Mr. Universe. By 2007, she’d competed locally, at the state, national and international levels. At 68, she won a world record for the bench press in her category.

Being Dutch, Hank and Yoka were used to riding their bicycles everywhere.

“I engineered wooden seats so we could each take two children on the bikes. We were a sight. Yoka and I then went for longer rides. We’d take week-long rides to places like San Diego and Canada. In 1996, we rode our bikes across the country; 3,500 miles in 10 weeks.”

On Sunday mornings, Yoka and Hank drove around town buying donuts. She then sold the donuts as a fundraiser for their church, earning her the nickname of Donut Lady.

But she baked more treats than she purchased. Her family and friends attest to her baking skills.

“She would bake everything from scratch, hand grinding the grain. She’d bake huge amounts and give them to her students or home-bound seniors. Up until one year of her death, she helped sort food at the Food Bank. She was still strong.”

“Yoka was cute and petite,” Erika recalled and chuckled, “Until you tried to cross her.”

“Being around Grandma, I’d think, ‘I can do that.’ She’d tell me that maybe I couldn’t do something one way, but I could do it another. She was empowering people long before we used that phrase. She taught until she couldn’t do it anymore.”

Yoka was diagnosed with FTD (frontotemporal disease) in 2014, which robbed her of her speech and strength.

“Even when she couldn’t speak,” said Erika, “She would show her students how to do an exercise. She smiled and showed compassion until the end.”

There will be a celebration of Yoka Zwetsloot’s life on Friday, June 4 at 5 p.m. at the Napa Valley College Glade.

Take a look back at how Napa Valley communities have honored the fallen in Memorial Day observances over the years.

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