I met a man last weekend that inspired me to no end. His name is Mel Zajac, and he is 94 years old.
I spoke to him for less than a minute, but he shared so much wisdom I wanted to share it with you. I doubt I'll be as brief. But I hope to be as interesting.
First, I should tell you a little about Mr. Zajac.
He was born in Winnipeg. The 7th of 8 children. In the 1930s, his father died. Leaving his mom to raise eight children on her own and throwing them into abject poverty. So, Mel joined the workforce early. He began selling newspapers at 11 and setting up bowling pins when he was 13.
He visited his sister in Vancouver at 19. He never left. He soon found a job at a lumber supply house. But it was during the weekends, that he learned the skills that would change his life forever. A lumber salesman taught him how to build houses. Soon he was building homes on his own. He eventually graduated to constructing high rises. 22 of them.
His main claim to fame is the Pacific Palisades Hotel in downtown Vancouver. (now an apartment building). During its heyday (1966-1985), if you wanted to be seen, the Pacific Palisades Bar was the place to be. A-list stars from Defamation Depp to funny man Bob Hope frequented the bar. And Mel has stories about them all.
It's safe to say Mel Zajac is a wealthy man. One would think he has lived a charmed life. Lucky him. But you'd be wrong. He's known more trauma than most.
Mel and his wife Irene lost two of their children in accidents within an eight month time frame.
Their son Mel Jr. (1976 Olympics 100 metre breast stroke) died in a kayak accident in 1986. Their other son Marty died during an avalanche while heli skiing in the Cariboo.
I've gone through much trauma during my lifetime. But I cannot imagine the grief of losing two children like that. And so close together. How does one begin to cope?
When I ponder this question, I can't help but think of the parents of the children in the Uvalde School shooting. I try to imagine what they are going through. What, if anything, would bring them peace?
I recently watched a video by Camila McConaughey (Matthew McConaughey's wife). They live in Texas. The video talks about what we can do to help the grieving parents – besides the typical donations. She shared examples of others honouring the children in different ways. Through works of art, music, and baseball games. The parent's have told her they feel solace through these acts. In a way it keeps their child's name alive.
I found it interesting as it's such a simple way to help and, at the same time, bring some peace to a grieving parent.
Mel Zajac did something similar. He turned his grief into a life of philanthropy in honour of his boys.
The The Mel Jr. & Marty Zajac Foundation has raised more than 20 million dollars since 1987. Mel received the Order of Canada in 2007 for his philanthropic work.
"It changed my course because I devoted my whole life to working and making things in memory of them."
One of those 'things' is Zajac Ranch for Children. A 44-acre ranch on Stave Lake. An inclusive summer camp. Where everything is accessible for children and young adults who have medical conditions and disabilities. The website states ~
"All children deserve the opportunity to participate in a camp experience that is both supportive and accepting. For many children with special medical needs, the care they require is often too great to allow them to attend a traditional camp. Facilities at Zajac Ranch are fully accessible by children of all abilities. Campers can receive the daily medical care they require – whether that means receiving medications or spending time in a special Snoezelen sensory room – at our 24-hour on-site medical centre, The OK Corral, which is staffed by highly qualified volunteer doctors and nurses."
I performed at a fundraiser for Zajac Ranch this past weekend. And that's where I met Mel for the first time.
My first sight was watching him from the stage as he danced to "Old Time Rock 'n Roll ." He was light on his feet. Twirling his partner. I had to pull out my camera from the stage and capture it. He was amazing.
Next, he came up on stage to perform "Just a Gigolo" with the band. His eyes twinkled as he sang,
"Won't some sweet mama
Come and take a chance with me
'Cause I ain't so bad."
After the song finished, he chatted with my singing partner Carol and me. And it was during the 45-second conversation he shared such wisdom on aging. And prompted me to write this piece.
His eyes sparkled. His grin was from ear to ear. His hug was firm. Carol turns to me, "He's 94!" Mel responded, "It's not how old you are. It's how young you are in your mind." Whoa. I've been researching this very subject, and now it was standing before me in a tailored blue suit.
Then he declared like a child running home with an A on his report card, "My personal trainer has me up to 64 push-ups!" I stood there in stunned silence. "I want to be here at this fundraiser next year. So I work at it."
Let's unpack this small but mighty conversation.
"It's not how old you are. It's how young you are in your mind"
As a man thinketh in his heart so he is. (Proverbs 23:7)
"My personal trainer."
What? At 94, he has a personal trainer? I've never had a personal trainer in my life!
"up to 64 push-ups."
Mic drop. Vulnerable tidbit – I can't perform one push-up. And this 94-year-old, scratch that, a 94 years young man can do 64 of them? Humbled.
"I want to be here next year."
That's future thinking, not when I die thinking.
He reminds me of the late Phyllis Sues. When her Tango partner questioned her (she was in her mid-90's) about the time it would take to learn a new dance move. She answered, I've got plenty of time. Phyllis sky dived, wrote a book and trapezed her way through her 90's until she passed away in 2021 at 98.
"So I work at it"
This man is not sitting on his laurels. He's taking action.
This short conversation and a quick look at Mr. Zajac's life is like a "How to Stay Young at Any Age" masterclass.
- Don't let past trauma stop you from living your life to the fullest. Or as I like to say "Don't cheat on your future with your past"
- Be of service to others
- Never stop having fun
- Age starts in the mind
- Take action
- Stay Active
- Keep growing
- Keep challenging yourself
- Never stop dreaming
You're never too old to follow a dream, learn something new and live a vibrant life.
So, whether you're 30 or 90, the next time you hear yourself saying, "I'm too old to (fill in the blank).", I hope you think of Mel Zajac. I know I will.
Click the link to learn more about and/or donate to Zajac Ranch.