Nic Zapko, ASL interpreter for Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, goes viral

An American Sign Language interpreter in Minnesota has stolen the internet with her expressive face and hand gestures.

These are somber times. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has been forced to address grim news in his state -- the coronavirus, the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd by a police officer and the civil disturbances that followed. As Walz speaks at his daily news conferences, Nic Zapko stands to his left, translating his words into sign language. It’s a job the 49-year-old takes seriously and delivers with gusto.

Zapko’s background in theater allows her to serve up a powerful performance on a daily basis, and her list of admirers grows daily.

“Nic Zapko is the Paul Allen of interoperation,” according to 10,000 Takes, a Minnesota-based blog.

Zapko was born deaf, but she is able to communicate easily. Hearing interpreter Patty McCutcheon, the CEO and co-owner of Keystone Interpreting Solutions, sits in the front row during news conferences and signs to Zapko, who then signs on camera, WCCO reported.

“We are working with Keystone Interpreting to really make this accessible for everyone, and I feel incredibly honored to be delivering the message,” Zapko told the television station via McCutcheon.

Zapko is a member of the Minnesota Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf’s board of directors. She is the Interpreting Education and Professional Development, Distance Learning Program Manager at Sorenson Communications.

Zapko grew up in a family of deaf and hearing people, according to the Minnesota Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf website. However, her mother’s death when Zapko was a teen splintered her family, according to the website.

After suffering through poverty, neglect and isolation, Zapko discovered live theater. She was a member of the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. On stage, she used her creativity to tell her life story.

She performed “The Deaf Duckling,” an educational fable about a duckling who was born deaf to hearing parents. The duckling faces prejudices at school and struggles to communicate with her parents. The duckling’s mother wants her to learn how to speak, but the duckling prefers to learn ASL. The play was conceived in 2004. Zapko and two other actors toured the Midwest in 2005 and 2006. In 2009 Zapko turned the story into a one-person autobiographical play, “A Look in the Mirror: The Memoir of a Deaf Performer." Zapko has also performed in “Visual Vernacular: No Voice."

Zapko has been a teacher, mentor and consultant for ASL interpreters, organizations and theaters.

“I don’t know #ASL but I feel like I am understanding more from @niczapko than whichever Minnesota official she is translating,” one Twitter user wrote.

“You are amazing! Keep up the great work. Everyone wants to know if you’re single,” another person tweeted.

Zapko has been married to her spouse, Lisa, since Aug. 1, 2013, according to Minnesota civil records.

The Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing worked to make the real-time interpreting of Walz’s news conference happen, WCCO reported.

For her part, Zapko remains humble and focused on her job.

“The deaf community in Minnesota is incredibly thrilled, and they are finally able to feel included and feel a part of the state and say we are here, we aren’t separate,” Zapko told WCCO.