Living Life to the Fullest
At more than nine decades young, this Winfield resident still has a hop in his step
Need some resolution inspiration? A very special Winfield resident could be just the spark. At just-turned 91, George Zima dances through life — and keeps a schedule that would exhaust people half his age.
On Mondays the former Broadway dancer bowls with “the men,” and in the evening there’s barbershop practice with West Towns Chorus in Downers Grove. Tuesdays, he rehearses with Chorus of DuPage and Wednesdays with the Wheaton Silvertones. Thursdays, he teaches tap dancing in Wheaton. On Fridays he bowls again, then at night goes out with his lady friend, Fran: “I’m robbing the cradle, she’s 80.”
On Saturdays Zima teaches another two hours of tap dancing then “I’m beat, so I take a nap.” He’s right back on the dance floor Saturday night with Fran. Sundays? “Church and dances, wherever there’s a big band playing that afternoon.”
Zima golfs regularly at Cantigny, sometimes with his grandson.
He cleans his home, mows his lawn with a tractor and trims bushes in the yard he fell in love with more than 40 years ago. “When I saw the big back yard I said, ‘That’s for me!’ ”
Tired just reading that? Not Zima.
“I like to look forward to getting up in the morning, having something on my calendar, reminding me of where I’m supposed to be.”
Zima started dancing through life at 8, when his sister taught her curious younger brother a few dance steps. He later took up tap, acrobatics and ballet. When he was 14, during World War II, the siblings performed tap-acrobatic dance as George and Mickey Winters (Zima means winter in Slovak.)
“We joined USO troops and played hospitals, Navy bases and later supper clubs from Los Angeles to Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.”
Their parents, home in Chicago, were supportive. When his sister married, George returned home to attend Northwestern University, where he was the gymnastics team captain and a cheerleader.
“Today, I couldn’t be a cheerleader because you have to lift those girls — I only weigh 130 pounds. They outweigh me,” laughs the once 5’6” student. “My size didn’t work well on the dating scene because every girl I took a shine to took up with a basketball player. So I just had to be cute and dance! Girls love dancing so I made out all right.”
Zima met his first wife at Northwestern, and planned to become a Physical Education teacher — a path interrupted by the urge to dance. The couple moved to New York City so he could “try it for a while.” Fourteen years on, Zima had performed on Broadway in shows such as Lil’ Abner, Gypsy (dance captain on two national tours with Ethyl Merman) and Pal Joey, working with Bob Fosse.
He also worked in television — with Perry Como, Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason. Once Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo) saw Zima’s dancing cow number in Gypsy, he exclaimed, “I have to have that cow on Mr. Green Jeans’ farm!” That led to seven years of occasional appearances on the iconic children’s show. Commercials and Sesame Street (Pete, the street sweeper) followed.
“I had to keep busy — you’re only worthwhile when you’re working,” says Zima.
By his late 30s, too old to compete against 20-year-olds at tap and acrobatic tumbling auditions, he earned a doctorate in school administration at Columbia University. After five years as a New Jersey elementary school principal, he moved to Winfield and became principal at Roosevelt School in Elmhurst — which has since been torn down — then Hawthorne, Holmes (also defunct) and Wiesbrook in Wheaton, where his show business skills came in handy.
“When I took the kids down to PE, if they were tumbling, I’d do some tumbling.”
On weekends, the one-time Elmhurst Lions Club president worked at ServiceMaster cleaning houses and carpets, before starting his own carpet cleaning company. On Sundays he sold jewelry at Stratford Square — it all helped put three children through college and one through med school.
For the past 20 years, Zima has been teaching three levels of tap dance to adults at the Wheaton Park District.
“I started out teaching seniors, but someone brought their daughter, so it’s 22 to 90 — I have a gal who’s 90 who’s doing well!”
With just one severe injury ever (a broken ankle in college), Zima rarely sits down while teaching, noting “I’m basically a ham, I dance along. You turn that music on and I’m gone!”
His resolution for 2018? Why sit when you can dance?Edit Module