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Izaak Walton appreciation dinner honored all volunteers and memorialized member Robert Vankus

Izaak Walton Nature Preserve hosted a volunteer appreciation dinner on Sunday, Oct. 3, honoring all who have helped out at the preserve.

In a speech, 86-year old Izaak Walton member and financial contributor Jerry Vankus memorialized his brother Robert Vankus who was an Izaak Walton member and died of COVID-19 last year.

The event was Izaak Walton’s way of giving back to its volunteers. About 90 people attended the appreciation dinner and anyone who had volunteered recently was invited, said John Brinkman, Izaak Walton president. According to Brinkman, this was the second annual appreciation dinner. The first dinner was in 2019; it was skipped in 2020 because of the pandemic, Brinkman said.

There were banners that said “Volunteers Are Us,” Brinkman said. Pig roast and Aurelio’s pizza were served. Vankus paid for the pig roast, and the pizza was paid for by Izaak Walton.

At the appreciation dinner, Vankus put up an easel displaying a poster with the words “Robert Vankus” and “July 3, 1939 – November 7, 2020” in large font at the top. It had photographs of Robert throughout his life – including pictures of him on vacation, at work, spending time with family, his “retirement bike” and holding up a Detailer of the Year award. The poster also had a photograph of his parents John and Katarina.

Vankus said the poster was made by LouLou Belle co-owner Dodi Wians. Vankus described it as a “storyboard” of his brother’s life.

During Vankus’s speech, he told the audience about his brother. Vankus said Robert had a mental disability, was wheelchair bound for three years and that he had to take care of him for about 40 years. Vankus said Robert was a “a talker, “very sociable” and that Izaak Walton was like his “second home”.

“He was a survivor,” said Vankus, adding that his brother couldn’t read or write.

Vankus said last year Robert caught COVID-19 twice before passing away.

“He was in and out of three hospitals seven times and he lost about 35 pounds. He had a terrible year,” Vankus said.

Vankus said that he and his brother were first generation Americans with parents from Czechoslovakia.

“My number two aunt came to America the day the Titanic sank. She could’ve been on there,” said Vankus.

Vankus donated $2,000 to Izaak Walton about two months ago in his brother’s memory, he said.

“[Robert] didn’t do any volunteer work – nothing formal,” said Brinkman. “He was just a friend of the preserve. In his retirement, he would come down to the preserve and hang out a lot. It was kind of a home away from home for the guy.

“In ‘09 and ‘08, we had to do significant repair work to the cabins. It involved months of work. Robert was often around asking if he could help. And we’d say ‘that’s okay’ because he just wasn’t up to it from a health standpoint.”

Brinkman said that in his speech, he thanked every member of the trash brigade individually by name.

“I mentioned all the groups, but the only group whose names I called out were the trash brigade. Because it’s not fun work and it’s their first year in existence,” said Brinkman. “Each one of them [in the trash brigade] is assigned a portion of the perimeter of the preserve to visit every so often on their own to pick up trash. So, I can confidently say that the perimeter of the preserve is as trash-free as it’s ever been.”

Brinkman said he also thanked the groundskeepers, the conservation committee, the camera committee, photo, the calendar committee and the teasel warriors. The teasel warriors are a group of 10 staff members who are aiming to “control and eventually eradicate common teasel,” an invasive species at the preserve, according to the Izaak Walton newsletter.

“It just happened to have been our 75th anniversary year, so we mentioned that. […] We celebrated our 75 years of volunteerism making the place work,” said Brinkman. “We intend to have a volunteer appreciation dinner every year.”

At the appreciation dinner, Jerry Vankus put up an easel displaying a poster memorializing his brother Robert. (Nick Ulanowski/H-F Chronicle)

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