Back in 1960 when Lou Nesslar did his open water training dive to be certified as a scuba diver, he wore three pairs of blue jeans and four wool sweaters to keep warm. It was June at Lake Geneva.
"It was cold," he remembers.
Scuba diving equipment and clothing have improved a lot since then and the Wheaton-Glen Ellyn resident is still taking to the deep waters. He can be found two days a week -- and often more -- at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, where he has volunteered for 10 years. When he isn't feeding fish and cleaning their tanks, he's doing repair work or constructing equipment for special exhibits and projects.
"I get a lot out of it," he says. "I get to use my brains."
Nesslar was honored by the Shedd during Volunteer Awareness Month in April for putting in more than 7,000 hours during his years there, but since has reached 8,000 hours.
He started at the Shedd after retiring in 2003 from WGN TV, where he worked 28 years in production constructing props and scenery. He was teaching a scuba diving class at the time and his assistant, Mark Schick, collection manager for special exhibits at the Shedd, suggested he could use Nesslar's help there a couple hours a week.
"One thing led to another," says Nesslar, who spends Mondays and Thursdays at the Shedd, and sometimes Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
"I'm working harder now than when I was working," he says. "It's unreal."
But he's not complaining. "Whatever you put out comes back to you in leaps and bounds," he says.
After starting out at the Oceanarium working with dolphins and beluga whales, Nesslar now dives among the schooling fish and predators in the Wild Reef exhibit. Staying under water for more than an hour, he feeds the fish, checks to see if any appear to be ill, scrubs and cleans, and repairs coral and fixtures that break.
Nesslar has to wear chain mail gloves to protect himself from the puffers and groupers in the predator tank, but he's partial to the eels.
"They're big puppy dogs," he says. "They'll wrap themselves around you and look you in the eye and say, 'Alright, I'm here. How about feeding me?'"
When Nesslar is not in the tanks, he often may be found at a workstation constructing things. Nesslar's 40 years in theater and TV production serve him well when Schick mentions something he would like for a special exhibit.
"A couple days later, a drawing is on my desk," Schick says. "It's been great working with him. He's full of ideas."
Nesslar constructed a decompression chamber to help fish acclimate as they are brought up from deep water. He's also built a funnel-type device to keep water circulating in the tank where coral is propagated.
In addition, Nesslar recently worked with the Shedd's education department on a competition for high school and middle school students to construct a remotely operated vehicle to go underwater. A team from Naperville North High School took first place and will go the state of Washington in June for the national competition.
Nesslar also is part of a nonprofit Aquatic Education Group that sponsors students from Chicago-area schools to take field trips to the Shedd. The aquarium puts on special classes for them and the group pays for the buses, box lunches and a goody bag for each student. When a teacher mentioned that many of the students are in need, the group began including necessities such as toothpaste and pens in the goody bags, along with such items as T-shirts and a textbook. One school that participates has a 55 percent homeless population, Nesslar says.
Nesslar's own entry into the world of scuba diving and the Shedd began when he was swimming at the Elmhurst YMCA and saw men carrying strange equipment into the pool. They said he could sign up for the next scuba diving class and he did.
"I took that and that was it," he says.
Nesslar taught scuba diving at YMCAs for years, and has dived in many parts of the world. His favorite cold water spot is Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. Shipwrecks dating to the 1800s and early 1900s are well-preserved and "blankets are still on the beds," he says.
For warm water diving, Nesslar likes Belize. The coral is better preserved than places that have seen too many divers.
Before beginning his career, Nesslar served with Army security in England. He married his wife, Vaughan, before leaving for England and the two will celebrate their 50th anniversary next month. The couple have four children, 10 grandchildren, and have spent the past 28 or 29 years living in a house literally divided between Glen Ellyn and Wheaton.
A graduate of the Goodman Theatre, Nesslar spent eight years working there before moving to WGN. At the Shedd, he seems to have a place to use all his talents -- whether it's diving among the marine animals or building equipment for a special project.
"He's a gold mine," Schick says.