Service before self: Volunteering is a way of life for Rhinelander ‘boomer’
By Eileen Persike, Editor
“I like to stay busy.”
Those five words add up to a classic example of an understatement when coming from Rhinelander native Bill Vancos, who has made volunteering an art form for which he’s been recognized by a statewide organization. A glance of the long list of programs and events for which Vancos volunteers, it wouldn’t be out of line to call it a full-time job.
A self-proclaimed “small-town boy,” Vancos knew, when preparing to graduate from UW Stevens Point with a degree in economics and business administration, that he would move back up north to live and work. After a precarious beginning, when he lost out on a job he was promised, Vancos went on to work in his hometown taking jobs in cost accounting, management and human resources.
“That’s the neat thing about life,” Vancos said. “You never know which direction it’s going to go. I like the unknown stuff.”
Since retiring in 2010, Vancos’ volunteer roles have taken him in many directions. His current interests include serving as president of the Rhinelander Historical Society, publicity coordinator and operations committee member for Rhinelander Area Food Pantry, vice chair of the Pine Lake Plan Commission, along with bell ringing for the Salvation Army, working with Relay for Life of the Northwoods, Lights of the Northwoods, Alzheimer’s Association, Let’s Go Fishing and others.
In the 1980s Bill was a soccer coach when his son, Jonathon, played and was on the board of directors when the Rhinelander Soccer Association was formed. In the early 90s he became involved in the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides against Cancer, which is now Relay for Life. The first relay, Vancos said, was in the green space where Park City Credit Union is today.
“In volunteering, you get to hang out with the nicest people,” Vancos said.
When he was much younger, his plans for retirement were to work with various tradesmen for a year – a carpenter, an electrician, just to learn the basics.
“I never did do that, but in volunteering, I get to do something fairly close,” Vancos said. “I like to volunteer and work with people who are really good at what they do.”
An example is when he works side-by-side with the chef who runs the kitchen for the Rhinelander Lions Christmas Dinner. Another is helping a local craftsman install kitchen cabinets and flooring at the food pantry.
“So that’s another opportunity I get when volunteering is to hang around with people and hopefully pick up a few things,” Vancos said. “I get to do a little bit of what my original goal from 20 or 30 years ago was for my retirement; I just do it in small pieces.”
Vancos was recently recognized by the Wisconsin AARP for his volunteer, work receiving the 2019 Andrus Award, named after AARP founder Ethel Percy Andrus. One person in each state is chosen for their ability to “enhance the lives of AARP members and prospective members,” improve their community and inspire others to volunteer.
He was nominated for the award because of his work with the AARP Tax-Aide Program, where he is the Rhinelander site local coordinator.
“Of all the things I volunteer for, that’s the most rewarding,” Vancos said, adding that this is his tenth year with the program. “We’re fortunate to have a good work group here that gets along well.”
Though some of the clients’ cases tug at his heartstrings, the immediate feedback after preparing their taxes is generally positive.
“They’ll come in and they’re stressed, they take this stuff seriously and want to get this thing done,” Vancos said. “You get their taxes done and you’ve lifted this heavy weight off their shoulders; plus hopefully you’re going to get them a refund or a homestead credit or something like that out of the deal, which sweetens the pot and you see them leave so happy.”
Rhinelander volunteer Nancy Brissee, herself a past Andrus Award winner with her husband, Bill, nominated Vancos for the award. Vancos said Brissee “bugged him for over a year” to provide information needed to submit the nomination. Finally, he said, she wouldn’t take no for an answer so he cooperated. Months later, Vancos was walking through an antique boat and motor show when he received a phone call congratulating him on winning the Andrus Award. During the conversation it occurred to him this was “that thing that Nancy did,” but it still didn’t register until the scope of the award – only one winner in the state – became apparent.
“I realized it was a little bit bigger than I thought it was!”
At the award ceremony last fall at the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry, Vancos was given an envelope of letters that were written about him and submitted to the selection committee.
“I was sitting at home reading these letters and blushing,” Vancos said. “It was humbling. I’ve never been one to seek notoriety, that’s not why I do it.”
Vancos said he’s been volunteering for one organization or another most of his life because he enjoys it. Donating his time also occupies his mind and his days following the death of his wife, Joy, in 2014.
“It’s been very therapeutic since Joy’s passed away, to be honest. It’s been a lifesaver to get buried into more things. There are many reasons why, but getting notoriety is not one of them.”
Nancy Brissee built a heck of a case with those letters. Vancos was a unanimous selection among the committee.
“Bill clearly goes above and beyond the definition of volunteer, and serves as an inspiring example of the phrase ‘service before self,’” said Sam Wilson, AARP state director. “He is committed to doing whatever he can to make life better for those around him and all of us as we age. He is truly one in a million.”