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741st Walter Zank Walter Zank marks 100 years

By Chad Karnitz

At first glance, it doesnt seem possible that Neillsvilles Walter Zank could be 100 years old. His youthful appearance, lively step and easy laugh seem like those of a much younger man. One hundred is just a number, Zank would tell you; hes likely more proud of having led a full life. From farmer to soldier to small business owner to inventor and tinkerer, Zanks life has been packed with interesting experiences. He was born, Zank recalled, on a farm in south Pine Valley. His parents William and Emma (Stelloh) Zank farmed and raised eight boys and two girls. He attended Silver Crest School. We only had to walk one mile to school, he explained. The boys in his family were well-known as hard workers, not ones to turn down a chance to help a fellow farmer. And they loved books. The Zank boys were all great readers. Wed walk to town to get an armful of books from the library, he remembered. Like so many children of the early 1900s, once he completed eighth grade, his formal education was finished. But his real-world education was just beginning. It was baseball that brought much joy in those years, Zank said, recalling vividly, how his mother rolled up rags to make a ball for her sons to play with. He found a couple of guys who wanted to play ball and they played at the fairgrounds. From 1930 to 1936, he played for teams in Neillsville, Colby and Loyal, playing catcher, a position that many were unwilling to try.

Back in those days I got $10 for every game I caught, he said. In 1936, Zank married Freida Gerhardt. In the beginning, they operated a farm for Katie Wasserburger, earning $40 a month. The Christmas of 1942 is one hell never forget, Zank said, with his draft notice coming in the mail. At 34 years old and with three children, he was off to basic training in Texas. At St. Louis he trained on the Alton Railroad in preparation for Europe. After a stop in New York, he was off for the European Theater, Zank, said, with the Armys 741st Railway Operating Battalion. There he served as a brakeman, assembling supply trains that ran to Holland, Germany, France and Belgium. We hauled anything anyone needed, from ammo to bombs to food and clothes, Zank said. After the war, Zank returned to Neillsville and worked for two years at American Stores Dairy Company, which later became the Milk Condensary. His other work experiences included the Farmers Store in Neillsville and Preway and Consolidated Papers in Wisconsin Rapids in the late 1920s. He also purchased an 80-acre farm north of Neillsville on STH 73. In 1959, he and his wife retired from farming. By then, Zank remembered, he was looking for something he hadnt done before, and he found it in the form of a grocery store. I thought it would be kind of fun; youd get to meet a lot of different people, he said, It was an education. Hearing of a store for sale in Fairchild, Zank jumped on the opportunity and opened Zanks Corner Grocery, which they operated for a decade. They lived above the store. Freida worked the sales counter at the front of the store while Zank worked in back wearing a lot of different hats. It was the warm, inviting atmosphere of the store that Zank like; there was always a pot of coffee on the stove and customers stopping in to visit and sit awhile.

The customers provided a storehouse of great memories, Zank said, recalling the boy who tired to steal fireworks and was caught by Freida. Zank told the boys father but he didnt believe him. He said, Oh no, it wasnt my kid; he was on the farm all day, Zank said with a chuckle. Then there was the boy who was given an exact amount of money to buy groceries but who came home with a candy bar. His parents made him return the candy bar. Thats the difference in parents, he said. The Zanks felt sorry for the boy and gave him a candy bar. Zank also found time to develop a product he called Custom Chimes, a device operating on a timer that played chime music. He sold it to 16 different churches, Zank remembered. He had always loved fixing clocks, Zank said, pointing to several in his apartment that he had reconditioned. Its a hobby he still pursues, Zank said, pointing to a small shelf clock that was awaiting delivery to its owner. Zank said he never smoked or drank and even at 100, he takes the stairs to get to his second-story apartment. Ive never been on a special diet; those will kill you, Zank said, laughing. He pointed to the wholesome homegrown food he ate while growing up as a possibility for his longevity. But hes quick to give the most credit to The good Lord, he said, pointing heavenward. Its been a good life, Zank said. We had a hard row to hoe, but I dont regret any of it.

Walter Zank, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday with family and friends, holds a photo of himself taken in the 1930s. (Photo by Chad Karnitz)