In 1988 Frank Veselak, then 62, retired from his job as a power tool repairman at Sears. At the time his wife Marilyn worked part time in the education department at Brookfield Zoo. She suggested to him that since he now had time on his hands why not volunteer at the zoo. Veselak thought why not. Now, 34 years later he is still volunteering at Brookfield Zoo.
“She’s the one who talked me into volunteering at the zoo so I figured I’ll give it a try,” Veselak told the Landmark in an interview last week at the zoo.
Veselak, now 96, is the oldest active volunteer among the more than 400 volunteers at Brookfield Zoo. But Veselak is not the zoo’s longest serving volunteer. That distinction belongs to Joan Canchola of Riverside who has volunteered in the Membership Services Department at the zoo for 46 years.
Every Wednesday from March through Thanksgiving between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. you can find Veselak at the Tropic World exhibit. When Veselak first came to Brookfield Zoo to volunteer he was asked where he wanted to be stationed. He said it didn’t matter. They had a need for a volunteer in Tropic World where the apes and monkeys are on display. So that is where he was assigned and that is where he has stayed for 34 years.
“I just love it in Tropic World,” Veselak said. “I like to talk to people, I like to talk to the guests, especially the school children. I enjoy talking to people. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t be here.”
He’s never really considered asking for another assignment. He says that he gets all sorts of questions. He often explains one key difference between monkeys and gorillas is that while monkeys have tails gorillas do not.
After about 10 years as volunteer in Tropic World, Veselak completed the training to be a docent.
He enjoys having lunch each Wednesday with the other volunteers. They share stories and news about the animals that they are stationed near.
Veselak knows the gorillas well.
“I got to a point where just by looking at them I could tell who’s who,” Veselak said.
Veselak enjoys talking to the zookeepers about the gorillas and monkeys. If something unusual is going on with one of the animals the keepers ask Veselak to keep an eye on the animal and report back to them. Veselak has developed a close relationship with the keepers.
“The keepers in Tropic World are the best,” Veselak said.” I enjoy working with the keepers and the docents.”
And everyone likes Frank.
“Frank is so amiable,” said Regi Mezydlo, the director of volunteer engagement at Brookfield Zoo. “Everybody loves Frank.”
Veselak especially loves the gorillas. Twenty-six years ago, he and his wife “adopted” Binti-Jua, who is now the zoo’s oldest female gorilla at 34. It was part of the zoo’s adopt an animal program which involves making annual donations to the zoo.
Watching two live gorilla births has been a highlight of his time volunteering.
Veselak grew up in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago and moved to North Riverside with his wife 57 years ago. He serves as Block Captain for his block in the 2400 block of 10th Avenue.
When he was 18 in 1944, Veselak was drafted during the height of World War II. He was assigned to what was then called the Army Air Corps. He was trained as the top gunner on a B-29, stationed in a small bubble on the top of the B-29 fuselage. The war had ended by the time he made it to Gaum so he didn’t see any combat.
The highlight of his military career came during a long training flight from Tampa to Kansas and back. Heading back from Kansas and cruising above the plains the pilot called Veselak down from his bubble to the cockpit. Take the controls the pilot told him. He did and he flew the B-29, with a co-pilot next to him, for about 45 minutes.
“It was a big thrill, here I was at the controls of the biggest aircraft in the world,” Veselak said.
After being discharged from the Army Air Corps in 1946 Veselak got a job at Sears where his brother-in-law worked. Veselak and his wife used to take their two children to Brookfield Zoo on Sunday mornings back when parking and admission were free during those hours.
At 96 he still golfs once a week and bowls twice a week. He takes no medications and has no problem standing throughout his shift.
But he is wondering how long he will keep volunteering at the zoo.
“I’m still thinking about it, maybe one more year I’ll have 35 (years as volunteer), I’m sort of thinking of maybe hanging it up, I’ll be 97 years old,” Veselak said.
But he also says he may keep volunteering as long as he can.
“As long as I’m active,” Veselak said.