Retired firefighter swings from treetops, illustrates books

Will Lilienthal works at Treetop Trek at the Brevard Zoo.

What does a firehouse have in common with illustrated book covers and Brevard Zoo’s zipline?

They are all part of Will Lilienthal’s life. After 27 years with Brevard County Fire Rescue, most of them spent in Viera, Lilienthal moved on to second and third careers as a zipline tour guide and book illustrator.

You will find him at Brevard Zoo from 7:30 in the morning until at least 4 p.m. on Sundays and Mondays, when he hangs around Treetop Trek, the zoo’s expansive aerial adventure course. He instructs guests on the proper use of the equipment and follows them through the course to make sure all goes as planned.

The 30-year resident of Viera never imagined he would be flying through the trees at the zoo.

“I had no intention of getting another job,” he said.

However, it is not surprising he was drawn to work at Treetop Trek, for a couple of reasons. As a firefighter, he trained in specialized response that included experience with sophisticated rope rescue.

“This is a way to put the training into action,” he said.

Lilienthal has always been a big fan of Brevard Zoo.

“I was one of the volunteers who helped build the zoo, and it’s really cool to now be a part of it,” he said.

The creative part of Lilienthal’s life began in high school, where he majored in art. He later attended the Art Institute of Boston before deciding he preferred the financial security of a steady job to the often unreliable income stream of an artist.

Being on duty as a firefighter meant long days of waiting in the firehouse. In the beginning of his first-responder career, Lilienthal would take his pencils for drawing practice until an emergency required his time. While he dropped the hobby for some years, he picked it up again just before retirement.

Friend and local author Donna Puglisi, who met Lilienthal during her frequent visits to Viera-area firehouses to treat firefighters to cakes, meals and pizza, encouraged him to rekindle his interest in art, inviting him to illustrate one of her books. Two books later, Lilienthal is currently working with Puglisi on her fourth book, “I’m No Angel in Stilettos.”

“Donna inspired me to get back to art,” Lilienthal said.

The new challenges of his “no-retirement” retirement satisfy both his creative cravings and his desire to help. Lilienthal always gets a kick from guest reactions at Treetop Trek. Many begin the course fearfully but complete it fearlessly.

“They feel good at the end,” he said.