Obituaries

Ronny Zinner, 70; Boston philanthropist

Mrs. Zinner served as president of the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation.
Mrs. Zinner served as president of the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation.

Ronny Zinner never had to look far to see traces of her family’s legacy. She was the oldest daughter of Carl and Ruth Shapiro, whose philanthropy is etched into buildings and plaques that weave a trail of generosity through Greater Boston’s hospitals, schools, and museums.

Yet when it was her turn to take over as president of the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, “she chose a different path,” said her husband, Dr. Michael Zinner. “She felt the value of the building was how it helped people, not the building itself.”

Focusing on removing barriers that keep people from participating in opportunities others take for granted, Mrs. Zinner directed millions in grants toward arts programs for youths, college assistance for the financially disadvantaged, language lessons for immigrants, and opening doors everywhere to the disabled.

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“Instead of following the current trend of business philanthropy, she had what I call a person-centered approach to philanthropy,” Lisa M. Lynch, dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, said in a eulogy at Mrs. Zinner’s memorial service Thursday. “As much as Ronny appreciated the role of physical space in providing new possibilities for organizations to pursue their mission, she knew that any physical structure, no matter how beautiful, would ultimately be defined by the people inside it and what they did.”

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Mrs. Zinner, who with the simple gesture of a raised eyebrow could lighten the mood of discussions that grew too serious, died of cancer March 18. She was 70.

“Ronny was the foundation,” her father said in a tribute the family prepared. “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.”

Mrs. Zinner also “was a beautiful soul,” her son, Jonathan Segal of Los Angeles, said in a eulogy at her service.

“She was my mentor, my confidante, and my very best friend,” her daughter, Jennifer Herman of Wellesley, said in her eulogy, adding that Mrs. Zinner’s presence was as strongly felt in the next generation.

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“I see my mom every day in my children’s eyes and in the way they walk through the world,” she said. “I feel so fortunate.”

She added that her mother “felt it was important for us to be exposed to the greater world.” At a symphony or in a museum, attending lectures or delivering meals to Hebrew SeniorLife members, “she would say, ‘You don’t always have to like what you see, but you do have to know about it.’ ”

Rhonda Shapiro graduated from the Winsor School, a girls’ prep school in Boston, and received a bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

She also graduated with a master’s in social work from the Boston University School of Social Work. From the Harvard Graduate School of Education she received a master’s in education and a certificate of advanced study in human development and psychology.

In a eulogy, her sister Ellen Jaffe of Palm Beach, Fla., remembered watching Mrs. Zinner spend hours in her room “studying, finishing papers days before they were due.”

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Lest anyone think Mrs. Zinner was all work and no play, though, Karen Secunda Levy, “her friend of longest standing,” spoke at the service of their girlhood days laughing in the back row during Saturday school at temple: “This irrepressible laughter was a constant in our relationship, with Ronny laughing with such gusto that tears would run down her cheeks.”

‘There was no time for glumness around Ronny.’

Malcolm Rogers, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, recalled “the wonderful dinner-companion, who loved wine and food; so eager to hear the news, so ready to laugh; a lively conversationalist but also — thank heavens — a great listener.”

“She was certainly, for me, a pleasure to work with,” said Jean Whitney, former executive director of the Shapiro family foundation. “When she came into the office, she always had a big smile on her face. That made me smile and made everyone else smile.”

On its website, the Shapiro family foundation said it was “pausing the funding of its initiative programs” at the end of 2013. Carl Shapiro had invested longer than nearly anyone with Bernard Madoff, who was jailed for running one of the largest Ponzi swindles in the nation’s history. Shapiro, who said he lost $545 million to Madoff, repaid $625 million of his investment profits to federal authorities recovering money for Madoff’s victims. The Shapiro foundation’s ability to support initiatives diminished in recent years.

By profession a psychotherapist who worked with teenagers and college students, Mrs. Zinner also cofounded the Thomas Segal Gallery, named for her first husband. Their marriage ended in divorce.

Serving as director of the gallery for a decade, beginning in the late 1970s, Mrs. Zinner was renowned for dinners she hosted for artists whose work the gallery displayed, including Jasper Johns and David Hockney.

It was at a dinner hosted by a friend, however, that she met Michael Zinner, who is chairman of the department of surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Seated next to one another, they conversed and then exchanged phone numbers at evening’s end.

“The things that attracted me to Ronny were the kindness, the gentleness, the humanity, her sense of social justice,” he said.

An overseer of the Heller School at Brandeis and of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Mrs. Zinner also was a longtime trustee of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where she had served on the president’s advisory council.

She and Dr. Zinner dated and courted and at one point he was offered the chance to lead the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “I decided I’d rather be married to Ronny than be dean of the Johns Hopkins medical school,” he said, and they wed in 1997.

“We’ve been beautifully, wonderfully married since then, and all this time I’ve never called her my wife, I’ve always called her my bride,” he said. “And she remains my bride to this very day.’’

Mrs. Zinner’s mother died in 2012. In addition to her husband, daughter, son, father, and sister, Mrs. Zinner leaves another sister, Linda Waintrup of Brookline; two stepsons, Dan Zinner of London and Darren Zinner of Needham; and five grandchildren.

“My mother would often read the last page of a book before deciding whether or not she was going to read the whole thing,” her son Jonathan said in his eulogy. “She wanted to make sure she liked the ending. Well, Mom, if this is the last page of your book, I know everyone here would read the whole thing. It ended too soon, that’s for sure, but boy did it count.”

In death as in life, her family and friends said, the chapters of Mrs. Zinner’s life will be read and reread by those seeking guidance from her grace and elegance.

“She was heroic, valiant; an inspiration to us all,” Rogers said in his eulogy.

“All of us here today were the beneficiaries of her high energy, big smile and positive outlook on life even in the darkest moments. It was contagious,” Lynch said. “There was no time for glumness around Ronny.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.