Brown Always Came First

By Emily Gold Boutilier / March / April 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Three months before he died, Dave Zucconi traveled to New York City’s Plaza Hotel to receive the annual Independent Award from the Brown Club of New York. In accepting the honor, the former leader of the Brown University Sports Foundation gave a speech in which he described his life’s passion: “It has always been what some people have called my relentless energy on behalf of Brown that defines me.”

Zucconi died of cancer on January 22 at the age of sixty-nine. Revered by many as “Mr. Brown,” he worked zealously in the offices of admission, alumni relations, and development during forty-four years on College Hill. He was executive director of the Sports Foundation from 1985 until 1999. A familiar face in the stands at Brown games, he devoted his adult life to making the University a better place for alumni, students, faculty, and staff, many of whom he considered part of his own family. In Zucconi’s heart, says his friend Jay Fluck ’65, “All of us played second fiddle to Brown.”

Zucconi’s impact can be measured in dollars—he is largely responsible for the Sports Foundation’s $45 million endowment, which finances about a third of the operating budget of Brown’s athletic teams. He did this through the sheer force of his personality, increasing the number of foundation donors from 350 to 4,000. He also raised millions for other University interests, particularly financial aid.

But to most people who knew him, Zucconi was not a fund-raiser but a warm, booming voice. He had a personal connection with thousands of alumni, each of whom has a Dave story. Blessed with a memory for names and faces, he could, for example, say a few words about almost any living alum who’d ever played for a Brown team. Toward the end of his life he even referred to alumni as his sons and daughters. “The University has gotten larger and larger and more bureaucratic, and Dave was the real thing,” Fluck says. “He was the glue. He kept us connected.”

Of course, Zucconi’s “penchant for stretching a few rules,” as he admitted at the New York awards ceremony, made him seem like a free man to his friends and an irritant to administrators who had to deal with the consequences of the stretching. Over the years, Zucconi was seldom hesitant to challenge a president or bypass bureaucracy if he thought it was best for Brown. “Some might say,” he reflected in New York last fall, “that I was an early adherent to the idea that to get things done at Brown, it is sometimes easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.”

Not surprisingly, Zucconi’s zeal eventually got him into trouble. In 1999 the Ivy League sanctioned him, along with several Brown teams, after allegations that some recruits had been offered financial aid in violation of Ivy rules. Zucconi, barred from contact with recruits, left the Sports Foundation but continued to persuade men and women to part with their dollars and give them a home at Brown.

The son of Italian immigrants, Zucconi was raised in a small third-floor walk-up in the Bronx. When the family needed new shoes, his father repaired them with soles from the city dump next door. An All Metropolitan halfback in high school, Zucconi also played baseball and ran track. His trip to Providence for his freshman orientation was his first outside New York City.

Zucconi was a varsity halfback for two years at Brown, averaging 5.6 yards a carry during the 1954 season, his best. He won eight varsity letters in football, baseball, and track and twice made the dean’s list—all while working twenty hours a week. Elected a marshal of his senior class, he was named a Distinguished Military Student on the basis of his Air Force ROTC record. He was later inducted into the Brown Athletic Hall of Fame.

“I graduated with an immense appreciation of my time at Brown,” he recalled in his New York speech, “never ever thinking that I would be able, someday, to give back at least some of what Brown had given to me.” (Eric Widmer, a former dean of admission and financial aid at Brown, later adapted the speech for the eulogy at Zucconi’s funeral at Providence’s Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.)

After graduation Zucconi served in the U.S. Air Force and was most valuable player of his base football team in England. Discharged in December 1957 as a first lieutenant, he became an underwriter for Chubb and Son in New York City and a math teacher and coach at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut. He returned to Brown in 1959 as an admission officer. He oversaw applications from the West Coast and Hawaii, increasing the percentage of the entering class from that region from 1 percent in 1963 to 10 percent in 1968 and often joking that he “opened up the West.”

Zucconi played semipro football for the Providence Steamrollers, and in 1962 the Boston Patriots signed him as a halfback, but he was cut in the preseason. Zucconi also had tryouts with major league baseball.

In 1960 Zucconi founded the Brown Rugby Club, serving as player-coach for many years. “He had to single-handedly measure and chalk old Aldrich Field, dig holes to set up goalposts, and buy a complete set of uniforms and a ball out of his own pocket,” read the Brown Booster Club newsletter in 1973.

Zucconi was named associate alumni secretary in 1969 and soon became director of the award-winning National Alumni Schools Program (NASP), which he’d founded. The program, now known as BASC, arranges for alumni to interview Brown applicants. He also doubled the number of alumni-sponsored Book Awards for high school seniors. Zucconi served as associate director of alumni relations from 1973 until 1980, when he became director of major gifts in the development office, paving the way for a $180 million capital campaign.

Zucconi also resuscitated the Brown Key Society and was active in the Brown Club of Rhode Island, the Providence Opera Theater, and the Providence Heritage Commission.

When Zucconi took over the two-year-old Sports Foundation in 1985, he blossomed as a tenacious fund-raiser; he’d include a personal note on most fund-raising letters, often rising at 2 a.m. to start writing, says Gordon Perry ’55, the foundation’s former president. “Whatever he did, wherever he went, it was always out of great, great enthusiasm,” recalls former Sports Foundation vice president Elizabeth Chace ’59. “And people responded to him because of that.”

“Dave was so personable and gregarious that people were drawn to him,” says Ron Dalgliesh ’90, who succeeded him at the foundation. “He took a personal interest in you.” A stickler for name tags, Zucconi always carried some in his pocket at Brown functions. At his funeral hundreds of mourners wore them in his memory.

Last year the University established the David J. Zucconi Fellowship for International Study. There is also a scholarship in his name. Zucconi is survived by his wife, Nancy Hopkins Zucconi; a stepson; a brother; and a sister.

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March / April 2003