Robert E. Zoellner, an esteemed Lehigh graduate, securities investor and arts patron whose deep commitment to Lehigh is visible in the university’s premier performing arts center that bears his name, passed away Dec. 23, 2014 at the age of 82.
Zoellner, who graduated from Lehigh in 1954 with bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and engineering physics and later served as a Lehigh trustee, was a lifelong supporter of the university. In the early 1990s, he and his wife Victoria committed $6 million to establish the Zoellner Arts Center, a 105,000-square-foot performing arts venue on the Asa Packer campus that brought measurable change to the university and provides students and the surrounding community with unique opportunities for learning, performing and the visual arts.
"Bob Zoellner was and will remain a Lehigh Legend," said Interim President Kevin Clayton '84 '13P. "Lehigh has been truly transformed by the Zoellner Arts Center and it was Bob and Vickie's leadership and generosity that made it happen. Bob was a bold thinker and one that took action. As a result, generations of Lehigh students, faculty and the community are beneficiaries of his impact. He was a kind gentleman and Bob will be missed in many ways."
Steven Sametz, director of Lehigh University Choral Arts and the Ronald J. Ulrich professor of music, said Zoellner created a center for the arts to flourish at the university. “Very few of us will leave a legacy that affects so many,” Sametz said. “Every time a student takes stage to sing or play or act, every time faculty and staff engage our students as artists, every time an audience member experiences the thrill of live performance, Robert Zoellner’s legacy lives on.
“Our students’ lives are transformed creatively and artistically, something they will pass on to their children,” he said. “Robert Zoellner has given us a gift that will last lifetimes. We’re very grateful to him and to his family, even as we extend our condolences at this sad time.”
J. Andrew Cassano, the arts center’s administrative director, said there would be no arts center without Zoellner’s vision for how an arts center can be integral to students’ experiences, how it could elevate Lehigh's status as a top-ranked university for creativity and innovation and how it could be a valuable resource for the community.
“Generations of students have and will continue to benefit from his generosity,” Cassano said.
As an undergraduate at Lehigh, Zoellner joined the ice hockey team, the Air Force ROTC, the Brown & White, the Pi Kappa fraternity and the Inter-fraternity Council. He told Lehigh’s alumni Bulletin that he credited some of his success to Lehigh’s classrooms, where he learned self-confidence and “humble egotism.”
After graduation, Zoellner worked for ITT and served two years in an Air Force communications squadron. In 1959, he joined a member firm of the New York Stock Exchange and became a managing partner there. In 1975, he and his wife formed Alpine Associates, a New Jersey firm specializing in securities arbitrage and investments.
Zoellner stayed committed to Lehigh after graduation. He served on the National Leadership Committee, his class’s 40th Reunion Fund Committee, and from 1996 to 2004, was a Lehigh trustee. Along with his wife, he then became an honorary trustee.
The Zoellners’ key gift to Lehigh – the naming of the arts center – was transformative. The theatre and music departments, after operating in a former power plant and dining hall, were euphoric over the Zoellner Arts Center’s 1,002-seat, acoustically near perfect Baker Hall, its 307-seat Diamond Theater, its 100-seat Fowler BlackBox Theater, practice rooms and set-design shops.
The university’s art galleries also emerged from cramped quarters in the Chandler-Ullmann building and found, in Zoellner’s modern galleries, room for works that had spent years in storage. Cassano said the center provided exceptional space for Lehigh’s art collection to be used as unique teaching exhibition space. Part of Zoellner’s then-collection of U.S. Postage stamps was exhibited in the Lower Art Gallery during the center’s fall 1997 inaugural season.
“Bob provided leadership that built the arts center, a venue that dynamically transformed the campus along with the type of creative and innovative students that come and stay at Lehigh,” said Cassano. “Students from every discipline are actively involved in the arts at Lehigh, and Zoellner Arts Center gave them a state-of-the-art place for self-discovery and expression.”
Cassano said the arts center also helped attract and retain talented faculty. And, it attracted renowned artists, including Yo-Yo Ma and Stevie Wonder, as well as the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur, which performed at the first-ever gala there.
“It allowed the highest-caliber professional performing artists, musicals and musicians, dancers and actors from around the world to perform and interact with Lehigh students and students of all ages,” he said. “It provided a world-class venue for speakers like Rev. Dr. Jesse Jackson, Salman Rushdie, Madeleine Albright and Angela Davis to exchange and challenge ideas with Lehigh and the community.”
In the past 18 years, more than 700,000 people have used the arts center as patrons, students, performers and visitors.
Zoellner, along with his wife, was a great believer in lifelong learning, often taking courses together in literature, history and other areas.
In addition to their contributions to the arts center, Zoellner and his wife made a number of other significant gifts to Lehigh. They spearheaded the effort to restore Lehigh’s physics buildings, now known as the Sherman Fairchild Center for the Physical Science, and helped underwrite the cost of rebuilding Pi Kappa Alpha after a 1995 fire damaged the fraternity house.
Their generosity extends to any number of other charitable organizations as well.
"The Zoellner Arts Center, of course, stands as a great testament to Bob's vision for and generosity toward Lehigh," Clayton added. "But his impact on this university goes far beyond the performing arts center that bears his and Vickie's name. His contributions to Lehigh have been transformative in shaping -- and improving -- the way our students live and learn. Bob was truly a treasured member of the Lehigh family, and we are forever grateful for the dedication and love that he and Vickie showed to our university."
Zoellner is survived by his wife of 39 years; his children, Robert E. Zoellner Jr., Alisanne Zoellner, and Gordon Alexander Uehling III; and seven grandchildren, including Andrew Garrison, a Lehigh student.
According to an article on northjersey.com, a service for immediate family was held Monday, and a memorial service for extended family and friends is being planned.
Story by Mary Ellen Alu