The walls and windows of Jack Zilko’s painting studio are wallpapered with faces of all kinds – an iconic portrait of King Henry VIII here, a cutout of climate activist Greta Thunberg there. From unnamed models to the world’s biggest stars, their images are taped or tacked in a creative, unintentional mosaic around his workspace, where he makes art at his easel.
“They’re all people and things I’m interested in,” Zilko, 94, said on an afternoon late in December.
Among all of the faces, there’s only one that appears repeatedly, in various images. Photo quality differs depending on the decade, but the subject of the pictures remains constant, her smile beaming forth in black-and-white and color alike. The woman is his wife of 66 years, Mildred “Milly” Zilko, 87.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” he said, gesturing to her pictures, then to Milly herself, who’s within earshot in the living room. “She’s just gorgeous.”
In the six decades they’ve lived in the Roslyn Heights area, the Zilkos have seen honors from the local community, plus a major one from the federal government, as well as the births of four children and nine grandchildren.
“There’s a lot of memories in this house,” Milly said.
Much of their history may have taken place in Roslyn, but it began at a Saturday night dance in Greenwich Village in 1954. New Jersey native Jack, then 27, had served in the U.S. Navy’s radio operations unit during World War II and was assigned to work on the development of airborne early warning and control units due to a lifelong interest and much experience in electronics after briefly studying physics at the University of Chicago.
After his discharge in 1946, he attended the Art Students League of New York on the G.I. Bill, and began his first position, as a designer at RCA Marine. Brooklyn-born Milly, aged 20, had been a member of one of the first co-ed grades of the Bronx High School of Science, had graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in accounting and was attending New York University’s Law School when she attended an Ethical Culture Society event with friends, where the two first encountered each other.
They arranged a date. By their third dinner, they decided to get married.
“He was perfect,” Milly recalled.
“And she was perfect,” Jack added.
And so, three months after they met, Jack and Milly got married in an interfaith ceremony at the St. George Hotel, sharing an apartment in the Village for the time being.
The Zilkos moved to Roslyn in 1958, renting an apartment on Warner Avenue, after Jack got a job as a designer at Fairchild Camera in Syosset and Milly passed the bar once she graduated from NYU Law School.
“She got it on the first try,” Jack said proudly.
Jack’s time at Fairchild would result in his most famous creation, the panoramic reconnaissance camera, which he designed and patented in 1960. A combination of his artistic and engineering pursuits, the camera was placed in the Corona satellite and sent into space “to spy on the Soviets,” he said.
Twenty-five years later, a model of the satellite and camera was put on permanent display in the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and Jack was recognized by the Central Intelligence Agency for his work as a “Space Pioneer.”
“They invited us to Washington for a ceremony, but Milly and I were on vacation in Japan at the time,” Jack said. “We didn’t get the notice until after the event.”
He wrote to the agency informing it of what had happened, and asking who else had been honored. A month later, a medal arrived, in addition to a typed letter signed by then-CIA Director William J. Casey.
“Your efforts were a very significant ingredient in the success of our programs,” Casey wrote. “Because of the nature of the activity, I cannot release a list of the pioneers as you requested.”
“It was still top secret after 25 years, how ridiculous!” Jack said, laughing. “I never found out who the other guys were.”
In the meantime, their first daughter, Jacqueline, was born in 1959, which led to their first house on Yale Street, and the births of their second daughter, Victoria, and first son, Evan, brought them to their current house, also on Yale Street. Lawrence, their youngest, was born in 1969. Milly raised their children throughout the decade as Jack worked, starting a new job at Inflight Motion Pictures, which converted films to be shown on airplanes, in 1970.
“For the first number of years, she stayed home took care of the kids,” Jack said. “And then when I started to teach, she started to work. So it worked out.”
At about the same time that Jack began teaching painting for adult education at Roslyn High School, Milly received her first job, working in trademark protection for Weight Watchers. Jack’s mother, Antoinette, then living in the home behind the blossoming family, helped take care of the children.
Following the end of the adult ed course, Jack’s students asked if there was a way to continue classes, leading to him leaving his job at Inflight Motion Pictures and opening a painting school in their basement, hosting 12 classes a week.
In the meantime, Milly served on the local Democratic Committee, as a board member of Planned Parenthood and the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and as president of the South Park Civic Association. Shortly after she retired from a nearly 20-year career at Weight Watchers, Milly received an appointment to serve as an administrative law judge for the New York State Worker’s Compensation Board, and served in that position for 25 years at the county courthouse in Hempstead before she retired several years ago at age 83.
With his 95th birthday around the corner in March, Jack continues to paint, though he says he’s slowly going blind.
“Matter of fact, I don’t see too well, I’m a blind artist,” he says.
His colorful, often surrealist creations are ever-present, adorning the walls of their living room where Milly loves to read, mainly focusing on nonfiction.
“I have no artistic bones in my body,” Milly said. “But I love going to the museums with him.”
As a shared hobby, the two spent much time visiting museums in New York City, with their favorite being the Frick Collection on the Upper East Side, though Jack said he still remembers walking past the Metropolitan Museum of Art on his way to art school.
Museum-hopping will have to wait, though, as the two said they have barely left their house since the start of the pandemic in March. But it helps that both enjoy the company they’ve been able to keep for 66 years.
“You have to like them as a person,” Milly said. “That’s the best way to be happy when you’re married.”