GLEN ELLYN – Last year, Lou Nesslar spent much of his time diving among the wild reef sea creatures of the Philippines. He didn't have to travel across the world to get there, though; he only had to go to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, something he's been doing regularly for more than 10 years.
As part of Volunteer Awareness Month in April, Shedd recognized Nesslar as one of the aquarium's top volunteers, reaching 7,000 total volunteer hours throughout his career in 2012.
Nesslar began volunteering with the aquarium after he retired more than 10 years ago. An experienced diver, he was teaching scuba-diving lessons, and his assistant instructor, who was head of special exhibits at the Shedd, suggested he volunteer there for a few hours each week.
"Well, a couple hours a week have turned into almost a few days a week," said Nesslar, who spends Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at the aquarium.
Throughout the years, Nesslar has mostly worked in the Wild Reef tanks, feeding the animals, cleaning the windows and gravel, scraping algae from the coral and maintaining fixtures that break, but he's also done similar work in the Marine Mammal exhibit.
Nesslar, whose house sits half in Glen Ellyn, half in Wheaton, worked at WGN for 28 years, constructing hand props and scenery. He's been able to use this background at the Shedd Aquarium by constructing barriers for the Wild Reef tanks and building a funnel to help circulate water and heat in the aquarium lab where coral is grown.
During his 10 years, Nesslar also has helped with bookkeeping in the Animal Health Department and a Remotely Operated Vehicle Competition with the Education Department.
Nesslar learned to scuba dive at the Elmhurst YMCA when he was in high school. He has gone scuba diving around the world since then, although there's still one place he wants to go.
"I haven't made it down to Australia yet, but that's on my bucket list to do," Nesslar said.
His work at the Shedd is something his 10 grandchildren enjoy getting to see. They'll come and watch him dive in the tank and play high five with him through the glass. When the family's together at the aquarium, Nesslar's wife says there's no competing with a grandpa who scuba dives, he said.
The couple will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next month.
Nesslar said his favorite parts of volunteering at the Shedd are all the people he's been able to meet and everything he has learned through his work and the lectures he attends.
"I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it," he said.
Note to Readers: A version of this story containing an error previously ran in print and online. Nesslar volunteered 7,000 hours during his 10 years of service, not in 2012 alone. The article has been corrected to reflect this information.