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East County Thursday, May 20, 2021 8 months ago

Class Act: A Good Day’s Work

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Ken Zidlick bored of retirement decades ago. At 90, the East County resident is still punching a clock at Publix — pandemic and age be damned.
by: Heidi Kurpiela Managing Editor

Ken Zidlick doesn’t dwell in the past, grouse about the changing times, kids today or advances in technology. He leaves that sort of kvetching to other 90-year-olds.

The Panther Ridge resident has more pressing matters on his mind, such as, when will cruise ships start sailing again? Did he remember to dump fish food in the pond before leaving the house? Did he refill the pie tin of cracked corn he keeps out for grazing deer? How will he spend his downtime once he finishes his latest 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle? And has it really been an hour since he sat down for his lunch break at an umbrella table outside of the Publix at Lakewood Walk — the supermarket where he’s worked for 12 years? And if so, he better suck down what’s left in his smoothie and get back to his register.

“Eh, I shouldn’t get in too much trouble,” Zidlick says, his blue eyes twinkling at the thought of being reprimanded by one of his superiors, all of whom are younger than him by a generation or three. “This is my first week back, you know. I had surgery on my neck in March, got some skin cancer chopped off, had to take a few weeks off.”

The sprightly cashier is a fixture at the Lakewood Ranch Publix. He even celebrated his 90th birthday at the store earlier this year, when employees surprised him with a photo collage, a signed banner and a custom cake designed to look like a puzzle, his favorite brain teaser.

“Everybody loves him,” says Assistant Customer Service Manager Deutsh Dorisca, who at 24 is almost a decade younger than Zidlick’s oldest great-granddaughter. “Some customers come here just for him. And he knows every one of them by name.”

Prior to his neck surgery, Zidlick, who has five children, 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, logged 20 to 30 hours a week and rarely called in sick. When he requested time off in March to recuperate from surgery, shoppers got worried. Some of them came by just to see if the clerk was back — a gesture Zidlick found as touching as his coworkers’ unexpected birthday fanfare.

“I was surprised by how many people looked for me,” Zidlick says of his absence. “That’s what makes any job interesting. The people. They give you purpose.”

At a time when the general public seems steeped in anxiety, Zidlick’s unflappable positivity and come-what-may attitude feel especially reassuring. His vim and vigor flies in the face of all the usual stereotypes about the elderly. Says Dorisca: “Basically, Ken is like a 60-year-old man. He doesn’t want you to go easy on him. He wants more hours. He’ll come in on his days off, and I’ll be like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he’ll laugh and say, ‘I’ve got nothing else to do.’ I think some of the young guys see him and realize they’ve got no excuse to complain. Personally, he’s an inspiration.”

Zidlick doesn’t see it that way.

Not one to self-aggrandize, Zidlick says he’s just doing what he’s always done: taking things “with a grain of salt, one day at a time.” In fact, of all the to-dos, to-don’ts, appointments and puttering on his daily docket, only one seems to register as a minor nuisance: idle time.

“Retirement is not what it’s cracked up to be,” Zidlick says, his green Publix-issued mask balled up in his hands. “There’s only so much sitting around you can do. I tried it. It’s boring.”

A New Jersey native, Zidlick was raised during the Great Depression. An only child, he later walked the traditional career path for a family man in the 1950s and 1960s, working for 30 years as a salesperson in the textile trade industry, a job that sent him traveling up and down the East Coast to textile factories run by companies including Hanes and DuPont. (The job still lights a spark in Zidlick, even after all these years. “You should see how fast they can make hosiery! One pair of pantyhose in 90 seconds,” he muses.)

At 65, he retired and moved with his late wife to the requisite 55-and-up community in Bradenton, where he quickly grew restless and took a job as a golf starter at University Park Country Club in exchange for free course time. He left the post 12 years later, after his wife was diagnosed with cancer, and built a small house on his daughter’s quiet, 10-acre property in Panther Ridge.

“I tell everybody if I’d have known I was going to last this long, I’d have taken better care of myself,” Zidlick says, finishing his smoothie — a protein-packed concoction his doctor suggested he drink to help keep his weight up.

As if on cue, a customer breezes by catching Zidlick’s attention.

“Watch out!” Zidlick calls to the woman, a playful smirk lighting up his eyes again. The woman — 77-year-old Kellie Sorley — spins to greet him, relief washing over her face.

“You’re back!” Sorley cries.

“I’m back,” Zidlick says. “Just a little skin cancer.”

They enjoy a short repartee in the last five minutes of Zidlick’s break. Before Sorley turns to leave, she leans in closer to say one last thing, as if to ensure her words won’t fade into the din of high-speed traffic along State Road 70.

“Ken is amazing,” she says. “You can write that down in capital letters with an exclamation point. We always pick his register. If we have to wait in line, we wait for him.”

She skips off into the parking lot chirping, “See ya next week,” an exclamation that blends in with the cacophony of birds squawking in the parking lot.

“See ya next week,” Zidlick replies.

He rises from the umbrella table, un-balls the mask in his hands and slips it over his face before heading back into the store.

“An old German woman I worked with back in New Jersey used to say ‘I won’t be here for a long time, but I’m here for a good time,’” Zidlick says. “That’s how I feel right now. I consider myself fortunate to be able to get up each day, go to work and meet people. It’s how I get my enjoyment. The rest of it is just stuff.”

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