Robert Zengeler found his niche early.
He started making deliveries in the family business, A.W. Zengeler Cleaners, when the school day was over at Lake Forest High School. As noted on the business' website, "Dry cleaning is the only life he's every known."
Over the years, he earned a spotless reputation among family, employees and customers.
Zengeler, a resident of the Wauconda-Mundelein area since 1970s, died Wednesday at 89 surrounded by his family.
At 88, he could still be found on the plant floor. His son Tom said that his caregiver would bring him to work every day, where he could often be seen pressing clothes.
One of the oldest dry cleaning companies in the country, A.W. Zengeler Cleaners opened for business in 1857. The business now has stores in Deerfield, Hubbard Woods, Libertyville, Long Grove, Northbrook, Northfield and Winnetka.
On the cleaners' website, Zengeler recounted how his father, Ralph, and his grandfather Art were his role models: "As a young child, my grandfather Art would take me down to the plant in Winnetka, where he did the dyeing. He was a master dyer. I'd roam around, watching him dipping clothes into the dye kettles."
He said he would watch his father "removing spots on the spotting board, the place where we keep all the specialized chemicals we use for that purpose."
Zengeler joined the Navy out of high school. He remembered how, at 18, "I wasn't particularly interested in going to college, I wasn't ready to go to work full time and I wasn't ready to get married and settle down."
That changed during his four years in the Navy.
He assumed the reins of the company in 1962 and expanded.
While he took time for family, "he was just a hard worker," son Tom recalled. "Every morning, he would get up at 4, 4:30 in the morning to go to work."
Tom Zengeler said his father was focused on quality and service, refusing to cut corners.
"He was always meticulous. He was the first one there to start the boiler in the morning, which ran the whole facility. And then he was always involved in production," his son said.
Tom Zengeler said his father put the loyalty of his customers before monetary considerations. He devoted himself to his community, giving to numerous church organizations and sports teams. He was a charter member of the Libertyville Rotary Club, which he served for 57 years.
Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21, at the Burnett-Dane Funeral Home, 120 W. Park Ave., Libertyville. A funeral Mass will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 22, at St. Mary of the Annunciation Church, 22333 W. Erhart Road, Mundelein.