101-year-old World War II vet Jack Hamlin visits 100-year-old Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield

Published: Apr. 13, 2023 at 6:59 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 13, 2023 at 7:05 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Springfield’s Dickerson Park Zoo is 100 years old this year.

And what better way to celebrate a century of service than to invite a century-old World War II veteran to the zoo to thank him for his service.

That happened on Thursday for 101-year-old Jack Hamlin as he got a VIP tour that allowed him to walk and talk with the animals up close.

Hamlin has seen and done it all as a World War II Coast Guard rescue swimmer who saved lives at Omaha Beach on D-Day. He’s won numerous honors, traveled the globe, met the Queen of England, and skydived in his 90s.

But Thursday’s trip to the zoo left him smiling ear-to-ear.

“I’ve been here before but never gotten a behind-the-scenes tour like this,” Hamlin said. “I have never enjoyed myself more than I have today, and that’s hard to believe, considering I’m 101 years old. But this has been one of the finest days I’ve ever had in my life.”

In October, the man who will turn 102 years old made his first stop at a water feature called E. C. Hamlin Lake at the zoo. It’s named for Jack’s father, who was a past president of the Springfield Park Board. Jack and his grandfather were also members of the board.

“We didn’t know the lake was named after his father when we invited him out,” explained Joey Powell, the Public Relations and Marketing Manager for the zoo. “I just thought it would be cool to have a 101-year-old World War II veteran visit a 100-year-old zoo. We also didn’t know that Jack and his grandfather had both been on the park board.”

That bit of serendipity seemed to follow Jack and a handful of people with him as they went around the zoo. There were moments of laughter and animals stepping up to the moment everywhere he went.

An elephant who had been trained to do a few tricks just so happened to know the command “salute,” which involved raising his trunk above his head and curling it up in a position that resembled a military salute.

Hamlin got to feed several animals, but at the giraffe enclosure, a male named Grady, after receiving a cracker from Hamlin, used his mouth in a circular motion around Hamlin’s head several times in what looked to be a show of affection or an attempt to comb Jack’s hair.

Hamlin got a kick out of that unexpected moment and was intrigued when he heard Grady was the only male among five female giraffes.

“I’m jealous,” Hamlin said.

The tour also stopped at the reptile house, where Hamlin went into the back area where the employees work and got a chance to pet several of the animals, including a Gila monster and a snake that Hamlin discovered he had something in common with after being told that she was a “rescue” snake that an animal control officer had turned over to the zoo after they had found her.

“That’s what I did during the war,” Hamlin said. “I was a rescue swimmer. I’m scared of snakes, but when I heard that word ‘rescue,’ I decided we were friends in combat because she needed to be rescued too.”

Hamlin demonstrates that sense of humor and caring everywhere he goes. When you’re around him, it’s very obvious he is a “people” person with a positive attitude that’s kept him spry and engaged as he heads into his second century.

All along his tour, when he encountered other zoo patrons, especially children, he would strike up a conversation and ask them about their lives.

“What really stood out to me is that every person he passed, he greeted,” Powell said. “In this day and age, sometimes we all get so busy that we walk by people and don’t see them. He didn’t miss one person here today. To have somebody who has the kind of history in his life get so excited about the zoo in his hometown, it’s truly been one of the most absolute, incredibly special days.”

“I mean, what a day,” Hamlin gushed. “I met every animal and met all the veterinarians and employees who take care of them. They should be congratulated by our city for what they’re doing and what we have here. People in Springfield should come out and see what they’re doing. It’s a pleasure to see.”

Dickerson Park Zoo hours:

  • 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, November–February (closed if walkways are covered with ice or snow)
  • 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, March–October, including all summer holidays.
  • Guests may stay in the park for one hour after the admission gate closes.

General Admission Fees:

  • Adults and teenagers – $17
  • Children (age 3-12) – $12
  • 60+ – $14 (discounted admission)
  • Children age 2 and younger and Friends of the Zoo members are admitted free.

School and group discounts apply to groups with 15 or more paying adult/teen or child admission. To receive the group rate, the group must pay in one single transaction. Guests may not pay individually and receive the group discount.

  • Group Adult/Teen – $7
  • Group Child – $5

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