Special Olympics has touched the lives of millions of people across the world since those first fateful Games organized by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in Chicago in 1968 – an historic moment that will be commemorated next year as the movement celebrates its 50th anniversary.
It’s likely unclear how many people currently involved in the global movement have been around to see all 50 years of it but here in Wisconsin, we have a remarkable volunteer who not only has been around for just about all of it, but who is also turning 100 this September 28th.
Joe Zubarik of West Allis has been volunteering with Special Olympics Wisconsin since the very beginning, when the first Special Olympics state event was held in 1969. The state track meet was held in West Allis and, after being told of the event by an acquaintance, Joe took his young daughter Jerri Lynn to the meet so she could participate.
“One day we were told to go down to the school… and she ran,” Joe said. And Jerri Lynn has continued to run, swim, jump, hit softballs and play bocce with SOWI for the last 48 years. Naturally, her proud father was there alongside her every step of the way, increasingly taking on larger volunteer roles as Jerri Lynn became more involved in Special Olympics Wisconsin.
“It (Special Olympics Wisconsin) helped her a lot. She enjoyed it very much,” Joe said.
With almost 50 years of SOWI memories, it’s understandably hard to pin down all the favorites. But Joe lists walking with his daughter and her fellow athletes in parades like West Allis’ Western Days Parade and Milwaukee’s Veteran’s Day Parade among his favorite memories. The West Allis agency still has several proclamations from the likes of the Milwaukee and West Allis mayors from as far back as 1980 recognizing their involvement in the parades Joe remembers so vividly. The proclamations also recognize West Allis for being in the vanguard of the movement to demonstrate the abilities of people with intellectual disabilities to communities and ultimately advocate for an inclusive society.
Joe also has many great memories of coaching SOWI teams in softball and baseball – which has always been his favorite sport. He remembers taking teams out to Fort McCoy for state softball tournaments and the fun and often silly atmosphere that filled the air during those events. It was common for the team to take squirt guns for everyone to cool each other off with on long, hot, summer days.
He also fondly recalls the many trips the West Allis agency would take to places around the state like the House on a Rock or the Wisconsin Dells, where one time the kids learned taxidermy, according to Joe. Jerri Lynn even got to drive one of the famous Wisconsin Ducks once. But it didn’t really matter that much what the group was up to – Joe was always game.
“Joe was always there for them,” Joe’s wife Dolores said. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Joe has always been there for lots of people in his century of life, including his wife Dolores. On July 12, they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. They met when Joe was 29 and Dolores 19 and they were both working for Kearney and Trecker Company, which made milling machines out of their West Allis plant. The rest was, as they say, history.
Joe was also there for his country. He is one of only about half a million of the 16 million American World War II veterans still alive, according to the US Department of Veteran Affairs. Joe worked during WWII as a crew chief with the Air Force working on military planes. He continues his passion for aviation to this day by building model airplanes. One of the highlights of Joe’s life happened just four years ago when one of his sons escorted him on an Honor Flight to Washington D.C. to visit the memorials dedicated in honor of veterans like himself.
Joe has also always been there for his family, including all 11 of his kids. Yes, you read that right – 11 children. Jerri Lynn has 10 siblings. Joe and Dolores’ kids are currently between the ages of 69 and 52. In the early 1950’s Joe and his father-in-law even built the home the family was raised in. Remarkably, 64 years later Joe and Dolores are still in the same home on a quiet, idyllic street in West Allis where they are often visited by their 11 kids, 26 grandkids and 27 great grandkids. They also have another great grandchild on the way.
Joe and his father-in-law also helped build several more of the houses in their neighborhood in the 1950’s as their new post-war community grew. Like we said, Joe has always been there for others.
It’s this kind of dedication to family, community, country and Special Olympics that makes Joe such a remarkable man, regardless of his age. But the fact that he’s turning 100 is pretty neat too. To honor his 100th birthday, Joe’s West Allis neighborhood – the one that he literally helped build over six decades ago – celebrated his upcoming birthday at their National Night Out Block Party. The celebration included a gorgeous birthday cake decorated with Joe’s very first car. Yep, you guessed it – a Model T Ford.
To give you a sense of how much has changed since Joe started driving at 16 (in 1933), he purchased the Ford from a gentleman on the side of the road for $10.
Despite how much has changed in the world, Joe is still there for those around him, including his Special Olympics family. Earlier this month at SOWI’s Cop on a Rooftop fundraiser, Joe staked out a spot outside Dunkin’ Donuts to serve as a guest greeter and familiar friendly face. With his help, the store raised over $1,000 for Special Olympics Wisconsin athletes.
Special Olympics Wisconsin is truly thankful for everything Joe has done for his community and for the athletes of Special Olympics Wisconsin over the last 48 years. Please join us in wishing Joe a very happy 100th birthday!