UArizona remembers public health champion Mel Zuckerman
Community leader and wellness entrepreneur Mel Zuckerman and his wife, Enid, are the founding funders of the University of Arizona College of Public Health that bears their name.
Mel Zuckerman, the visionary founder of Canyon Ranch and namesake of the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, died on March 18, surrounded by family at his home. He was 94.
"Mel Zuckerman believed in the power of healthy living," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "We are so fortunate that he and Enid also believed that partnership with the university could be a means of expanding that vision to our community and well beyond through public health education and programs designed to bring lifestyle-based disease prevention to the community."
In 1997, inspired by the vision of Dr. James E. Dalen, former vice president of health sciences and dean of the UArizona College of Medicine, the Zuckermans created a $10 million endowment that paved the way to establishing a new college dedicated to public health. When it launched in 2000, it became the first nationally accredited college of public health in the Southwest.
"The vision for this college was that it would have a national presence in the area of health education and health promotion," Zuckerman said at the time.
In the two decades since, that vision has come to fruition.
Perhaps no better illustration is how Zuckerman College of Public Health faculty, administrators and students mobilized in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. An essential partner to local and state government agencies, the college played a central role in testing and contact tracing, research on epidemiologic and immunologic characteristics of the virus, and promoting and delivering vaccines.
"This is a story about the power of philanthropy to create real, tangible impact on individual lives, on the community and globally," said University of Arizona Foundation President and CEO John-Paul Roczniak. "Mel and Enid saw support of the university as a means of making public health accessible to all. Through the Zuckerman Family Foundation, they have continued to invest in programs addressing health equity and helping the college be responsive to the changing needs of our state."
"Mel's kindness, generosity and support of the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health have always provided inspiration to me and to everyone in our college," said Iman Hakim, dean of the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. "His concern for our success and well-being continues to keep me moving forward every day. It is because of his passion and generosity that we as a college are a better place. I will always remember Mel for being a kind and compassionate man. Along with his beloved, Enid, they helped us greatly throughout our college's growing years and always provided encouragement and support to our efforts. We are so grateful for the time we spent with him and are humbled by the legacy he left."
The Zuckermans came to Tucson from New Jersey in 1958, finding success in building and real estate development in the fast-growing city. When Mel was 40, his doctor advised him that his health risks were equivalent to those of a 65-year-old man, but it wasn't until 10 years later that the message crystallized in what Mel called his "aha!" moment.
Mel's father, a lifelong smoker, had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
"I watched my father hang his head in his hands and say over and over again, 'if only I had listened to my doctors and 'if only I had done this or that,'" Mel wrote in Canyon Ranch origin stories. It was too late for his father, who died six months after the diagnosis, but "it was a true wake-up call for me,"” Mel wrote.
Mel had a transformative health and wellness experience at a spa in Ojai, California.
"Enid had been devoted to healthy living for a long time, and she'd suggested some years before that maybe we ought to build a 'fat farm,' that there were a lot of them springing up, and that Tucson would be a good place for one," Mel wrote. "I'd just rolled my eyes and kept on building houses. (In California) her suggestion came back to me, and the idea for Canyon Ranch was born."
When they returned to Tucson, the Zuckermans bought the Double U Ranch with the intention of reaching their new goal, and Canyon Ranch opened just 20 months later, in 1979.
"We built it as a place where we could live the healthy lives we wanted, and where we could share what we'd found with anyone who cared to come to us," Mel wrote.
Canyon Ranch grew to the forefront of the now $3.72 trillion global wellness space, expanding the concept of a health resort by introducing a professional approach with a staff that includes board-certified physicians, registered dietitians, exercise physiologists, licensed therapists and other highly skilled staff. The brand now operates numerous wellness centers in the United States. The family sold Canyon Ranch in 2017.
While their business expanded, Mel and Enid steadily collaborated with and gave back to the University of Arizona, starting with support of the physiology and nutritional sciences departments and growing over time to include the endowment that launched the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. Mel also gave generously of his time and expertise, serving as a member of the University of Arizona Foundation Board of Trustees and the Zuckerman College of Public Health Community Advisory Board. He was awarded an honorary degree from the College of Medicine – Tucson in 1998.
Mel is survived by his wife, Enid; his two children, Amy and Jay (Stephanie); his grandchildren Nicole (Ken), Talia, Colton and Riley; his two great-grandchildren, Chloe and Asher; his sister and brother-in-law Paula and Arthur Molk; his many nieces and nephews; and countless friends.
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