George Hull, the longtime police chief for Brookfield Zoo, died April 2 after battling cancer. He was 66 years old.
Hull served as chief at the zoo for 32 years, but had worked at Brookfield Zoo for 50 years, since the age of 16, when he landed his first job as a seasonal worker. Known as a no-nonsense chief by those he supervised, Hull also knew exactly how to approach his role as the leader of a police force that watched over a national tourist attraction.
“He always wanted to maintain the credibility and respect of our police department on a par with the chiefs around the region,” said Stuart Strahl, CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo.
“People saw our officers as real police officers,” added Strahl. “That was mixed with the concept of customer service.”
According to those who worked under Hull as both police officers and as teenagers serving as park safety officers, the chief insisted on his employees viewing park visitors as people they were there to serve.
“One thing he would tell all the new employees is that you couldn’t work for the zoo unless you could deal with people,” said Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel, who got his start as a seasonal police officer at the zoo before being hired in Riverside in 1983, the year Hull was elevated to chief.
“You had to cater to and serve the zoo’s clientele,” Weitzel said. “If you couldn’t be people-friendly and helpful, you were gone.”
Weitzel wasn’t the only one who succeeded after being mentored by Hull. Others who started out as either teenage park safety officers of police officers at the zoo included former North Riverside Police Chief Anthony Garvey, former Lake Forest Police Chief Joseph Buerger, former Countryside Police Chief Timothy Swanson, Lyons Deputy Police Chief Matthew Buckley, Lyons Police Cmdr. Brian Kuratko and North Riverside Detective Sgt. Carlos Garcia.
“He really drove that stuff home with all of us,” said Buckley of Hull’s insistence on serving customers. “We all put that into our lives and careers.”
Weitzel said his training at the zoo influenced the way he approached policing in Riverside.
“For me, that was really good training,” said Weitzel. “In Riverside, there’s a high demand for police service, and I already had experience dealing with the public. No one didn’t benefit from his training and the way he structured their police department.”
He was also the first boss Hubert Hermanek Jr., who is now North Riverside’s mayor, ever had. The two remained close friends until Hull’s death.
“It’s very rare for a guy like that to develop so many good people,” said Hermanek, who started working at the zoo as a teen in 1974. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many chiefs and deputy chiefs came out of the zoo.”
At the same time, Hull also insisted that his officers were trained to respond to situations as legitimate police officers — and as emergency medical technicians. All of the zoo’s officers are also cross-trained as EMTs.
Buckley, who got his start as a teenage public safety officer in 1984, said his EMT training influenced his decision to become a paid-on-call firefighter for the village of Riverside, where he also serves as deputy fire chief.
“George would say, ‘On a nice summer day our population here is bigger than Brookfield and Riverside put together.’ When you think about it, it’s a big responsibility.”
Strahl referred to Hull simply as “chief” and said Hull was “the sort of person who could give advice without vocalizing the advice. People saw him as a guide even when he wasn’t guiding.”
No one has been named chief yet in the aftermath of Hull’s death, said Strahl. The zoo police department which comprises 13 full-time officers, one part-time officer and employs seasonal police officers and park safety officers, does have veteran command staff who have carried on in his absence.
“He left us with a great team and a good structure,” Strahl said. “The way he did things is going to be felt here for a lot longer than my tenure.”