A quiet presence, but an unmistakable force, Rhonda (Ronny) Zinner built her life around three pillars: an unyielding love of family, a passion for learning, and a commitment to community service. With a classic elegance and somewhat shy demeanor, she touched countless lives through small acts of kindness and thoughtful advice.
Her focus on family and community were both lessons learned from her parents – Ruth and Carl Shapiro – around the dining room table talking about their days, the world around them and how they could make a difference.
“Ronny was a pillar of our family, extraordinary, loyal and caring,” says sister Ellen Jaffe. As a child, she was studious and serious; sister Linda Waintrup remembers Ronny “sitting at her little desk with the light on, always studying away.” That nature stayed with Ronny throughout her life. She was a lifelong learner who encouraged careful analysis before reaching conclusion, and inspired those around her to always consider things from a different perspective.
Close friends and family could count on Ronny to give them her undivided attention and to treat every interaction thoughtfully and personally. Ellen points to a saved collection of greetings and holiday cards she received from Ronny over the years. Not one is simply signed “love, Ronny,” each reflected her deep love and appreciation. That same trait also made her the perfect toast maker for any occasion.
A graduate of Boston’s Winsor School, Ronny received her B.A. at Sarah Lawrence College and her M.S.W. at Boston University School of Social Work. She then received her M.Ed. and Certificate of Advanced Study in Human Development and Psychology magna cum laude at Harvard University School of Education. In recent years, Ronny considered the non-profits of greater Boston as her classroom, eagerly visiting the community-based organizations to learn more about the way these organizations, large and small, were impacting lives.
In her early career she was a psychotherapist, focusing her practice on distressed teens and college students. Out of her Cambridge office, she saw young people at their most difficult moments and provided a compassionate, non-judgmental source of support, as well as offering her services on a sliding scale to assure that no need went unmet.
Her love of art became a profession when Ronny co-founded, with her then husband, the Thomas Segal Gallery, Boston, where she served as the Director from 1977 to 1986. She would co-host intimate dinners for artists who showed at the gallery, some unknown and others as prominent as Jasper Johns, David Hockney and Dale Chihuly. Ronny found art in all of its forms restorative, saying that a trip to Manhattan to see plays and visit galleries was a form of therapy for her. When she met and married her husband Michael Zinner, M.D., Chairman of the Department of Surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, she embraced his passion for symphony; the two served as overseers of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood. She also shared his love of Brigham and Women’s where she was a longstanding member of the hospital’s Trust Board and the President's Advisory Council.
She did all she could to foster family time for others, going so far as to reinvent the annual and previously stuffy Brigham and Women’s Hospital department of surgery holiday party co-hosted by husband Michael, to include staff and their children – funding games and activities she personally selected for children, including an interactive DJ and child-friendly food options. Her special touches made the event the biggest hit of the holiday season year after year.
Her children Jonathan Segal and Jennifer Herman, describe their mother as someone who was “extremely supportive, wise and who truly gave unconditional love”. She was strong, determined and warm; analytical but not judgmental. Her son Jonathan said his mother, “always encouraged me to bet big on myself. I could go to her with any challenge I was facing and I found it was not the answers she would provide, but rather the questions she asked that allowed me to discover the authentic path to my own truth.”
She taught her children to be independent, to pursue their passions, to focus on areas where they could bring their unique talents to the benefit of the larger world. She was enormously proud of her son Jonathan’s widely distributed commercial feature film, which spoke to important issues of teen mental health – a topic close to Ronny’s heart – in a contemporary and accessible way.
“She was my best friend, a real role model,” said daughter Jennifer.
From the beginning of their relationship, she and Michael embraced their blended family, including Michael’s two sons, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren, who Ronny considered her own. Though it has always been family first for Ronny, once there were grandchildren it became “grandchildren first!” She was known for fishing off the dock, late night ice cream binges, messy finger painting marathons and cheering loudly at Red Sox games with her grandchildren.
Ronny had a way of making everyone around her – the teens she counseled, the beneficiaries of the non-profits she supported, friends and family – feel special. “I considered Ronny my sister, not my sister-in-law,” said Bob, Ellen’s husband, “Ronny loved deeply and with her whole heart. I feel fortunate to have been part of her family for the last 45 years.”
Shortly before her passing, determined to make grandson Zachary’s Bar Mitzvah celebration a treasured memory for all, Ronny mustered all of her energy and participated fully in the special day: speaking, lighting candles and offering an inspiring toast in true Ronny style. Putting others first was the source of Ronny’s strength throughout her life, but even more so in the past few years as she courageously battled cancer.
Combining education, family and her many passions was the work that Ronny did as president of the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation. Ronny’s leadership built on the philanthropic legacy of her parents and brought a fresh perspective on how best to impact the lives of Boston residents. Her father Carl recently said, “Ronny was the Foundation. She was dedicated to helping as many people as she could and when she took over day to day, I told her ‘do what you think best.’ And she did; she was all a father could ask for.”
Fueled by empathy for those who struggled with life’s challenges and a commitment to social justice, Ronny led the Foundation in developing new grant making strategies that worked at both the individual and community levels to empower people to make positive changes in their lives. The result was that during her tenure, the Foundation granted over $10 million to more than 100 community-based organizations in Boston for efforts such as after-school youth arts programs, recreational opportunities for people with disabilities, ESOL instruction for immigrant adults, and college access for aspiring Boston high school students. These grants complemented the ongoing capital investments made in Boston area education and cultural institutions by her parents.
“Ronny had an innate appetite for learning and for connecting with others from whom she might learn or share information,” remembered Jean Whitney, who served as Executive Director of the Foundation for several years. “Ronny was a person of great integrity. She was honest and open and trustworthy.”
“My mother simply wanted to make a difference and to support people in leading their best lives” said her daughter Jennifer Herman. “For her, it was never about “the credit”, it was about having a positive impact on people’s lives.”
Said husband Michael Zinner, “While our hearts are broken and we will all miss her, so too will the thousands of people whose lives she touched.”
Ronny is survived by her husband Michael Zinner, her daughter Jennifer Herman and son-in-law Mark Herman and their three children (Ashley, Zachary, and Alexandra), her son Jonathan Segal, her father Carl Shapiro, her sister Ellen Jaffe and brother-in-law Robert Jaffe, Sister Linda Waintrup and brother-in-law Daniel Waintrup, stepson Dan Zinner and stepson Darren Zinner and his wife Tracy and their two children (Coby and Ethan), and five nieces and nephews and their spouses and two great nephews and a great niece.
Funeral services will take place on Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 11:00 a.m.
477 Longwood Avenue
Memorial observance will be at the home of Linda and Daniel Waintrup.
381 Warren Street
Thursday 2:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Friday 2:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Saturday 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Sunday 2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions be sent to:
Surgical Cancer Care Fund
Brigham and Women's Hospital
116 Huntington Avenue, 3rd Floor
Boston, MA 02116
Surgery, Education and Program Support Fund
Brigham and Women's Hospital
116 Huntington Avenue, 3rd Floor
Boston, MA 02116