When your life experiences have included driving the Indianapolis 500 Speedway at 120 mph, flying a helicopter as one of your home town’s first traffic reporters, and munching on hot Hungarian peppers as a snack, few things will faze you. For Frank Burany, even his hundredth birthday was “just another day.”
Frank, who turned 100 on August 16th, is baffled that so many people “made such a big thing of it.” His son, Dick, put on a fantastic party at Three Pillars Senior Living Communities, Frank’s home since January of 2013. After enjoying a perfect afternoon with about 100 guests, he admitted with a grin, “I guess I kind of got warmed up about the whole turning 100 thing.”
A touch of nostalgia sets in as he reflects on the happiness that’s filled his life. “I look back at all my years, and I’ve really had a fun life. It’s been full of experiences, and that’s how I’ve learned many life lessons. Experience is the best teacher.”
Frank is a husband, father, Mason, and a Shriner. He spent 22 years running the Sleepy Hollow Motel, 9 years as one of Milwaukee’s first helicopter traffic reporters, and 35 years as a professional midget racecar driver. He holds over 80 racing victories throughout the Midwest, Southwest and coast to coast, and has been featured in the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame for 12 years and counting.
Frank’s currently the oldest living person to have ever driven the Indianapolis 500 Speedway. This spring, he and Dick took an ambitious jaunt down memory lane to see the first qualifying day at the speedway, driving down and back within a day. The trip may have been grueling to some, but Frank didn’t mind it one bit, still feeling quite at ease on the road. He feels lucky to have these special times with his son, who was and continues to be one of his biggest blessings in his life. “He’s everything to me, my buddy.”
When Frank was born, his family had just recently moved to Wisconsin from Hungary. His father, a blacksmith, believed in teaching by setting an example and working hard. “When I was a kid, I didn’t just get stuff,” he explains. “I had to work for it. I watched, learned, and worked hard.” The skills he picked up from his father earned him a deferment during the war to work two jobs, in both bullet production and metal heat treating. His strong business sense landed him a leadership position and he led his factory to quadruple bullet production. His second-to-none heat treating skills and unrivaled perseverance allowed him to produce a fundamental piece for a critical military submarine endeavor. Today, if you look closely at a cooling tower in the Hoover Dam, you’d find Frank’s welding mark on it – a piece he welded with his own two hands.
Success also found Frank in athletics, as he worked hard to become an accomplished swimmer and later the captain of the Hungarian soccer team, the Tigers. He beams as he remembers his late wife Helen’s love for “soccer boys.” When asked if being the captain was the trick to winning her over, his smile broadens. “Some guys have to have some secrets.” She was his other half, and he fondly remembers countless special times with her.
In all he’s done, his motto has always been, “If somebody can do it, I can. We’re all human beings; we can do whatever we set out to do.” That attitude has taken him far in life, never being one to shy away from something that others may have thought was too big a challenge.
He remembers buying a motorcycle for dirt cheap because it had been disassembled and deemed useless. He used his mechanical knowledge to re-build it to his liking, paying no mind to the speedometer, of course. He chuckles remembering one day riding so fast and so close to a streetcar that it bent his handle bars straight up as he breezed by. The streetcar driver thought he might have killed him, but Frank came through with a smile on his face. That too was “just another day.”
“I guess I’ve done a lot of stuff that might make anyone else wet their pants, but not me. I’ve been in a helicopter that fell from the sky as the engine failed. I’ve hit the wall on the racetrack going faster than most people have ever driven. Just another day.”
So has his “just another day” mentality been the key to reaching his 100th birthday? Maybe so, he decides. He’s thankful to have been given so many days, but has “never thought anything of his age.” He appreciates his 100th birthday just as much as the other days of his life.
He adds that, perhaps in addition to his easy-going attitude, watching what he eats might have helped. “I’ve always limited my salt and butter intake. But, then again,” he adds, “I’ve never held back on whipped cream.” He’s been known to take care of a whole 6-pack of State Fair cream puffs single handedly. “Those are my favorite – and one thing I don’t share.”
Today, Frank continues to enjoy every day he’s given to the fullest, though maybe in a more subdued sense than his flying and racing days. He can be found spending time by his garden in the courtyard at Three Pillars, soaking in the sun in his favorite spot outdoors, sipping a bubbly Dr. Pepper, or bringing a smile to his friends’ and neighbors’ faces with a friendly anecdote in the dining room or hallway.
When asked if there’s any one thing he would change if he could, his response is from the heart: “No, I wouldn’t change a thing. Everything in my life has been a stage of learning. Each thing I did gave me a chance to learn about this or that which I hadn’t known before.”
Frank points to the sky and concludes, “After all, the Big Guy is in charge.” And for that he’s thankful.