The Converse community celebrates the life and legacy of longtime supporter, philanthropist, and Converse Life Trustee Kurt Zimmerli, who passed on May 30, 2021. Mr. Zimmerli is survived by his wife, Nelly, daughter Kathy Zimmerli Wofford ’09, and son Mark (Lea Anne).
Mr. Zimmerli’s special understanding and appreciation for the arts and culture at Converse created an enormous impact on Converse and the Spartanburg community. His commitment to Converse began with his love of music, and Mr. Zimmerli was a faithful attendee of the Carlos Moseley Chamber Music Series. His presence at Converse became an interest in serving on Converse’s Board of Trustees, with his first term beginning in 1983. In 2004, he was designated as a Life Trustee. In 2002, Mr. Zimmerli was presented with Converse’s highest honor, the Dexter Edgar Converse Award. He served for several years as chair of the Finance Committee and of the Buildings and Grounds Committee at Converse, enthusiastically providing dedicated service to the fulfillment of the College’s mission, to its financial health, and to its physical plant and appearance.
“The Zimmerlis generously provided leadership and financial support for the arts at Converse and in the Spartanburg community.” – President Krista Newkirk
“Kurt was an extraordinary man. He was a gifted problem solver and, together with his wife Nelly and through their philanthropy, the Zimmerlis generously provided leadership and financial support for the arts at Converse and in the Spartanburg community, with their numerous gifts supporting facility improvements, performances, and events,” said Krista Newkirk, Converse president. “Kurt led the first renovation of Twichell auditorium in 1989 and, when he noted the need for accessibility, the Zimmerlis made a generous lead donation to renovate the building again. The Zimmerlis understood that many others in the community were missing events because Twichell was not easily accessible. Kurt and Nelly were deeply involved in making certain that this renovation truly made the auditorium inclusive for individuals of varying mobility needs, while ensuring that nothing was done that would degrade the beautiful acoustics of that space. Deep in his heart, I believe Kurt was a musician. He was kind, generous, and whip-smart to the end.”
The Zimmerlis enabled progress in the Petrie School of Music by providing endowed scholarships for Converse students, endowed funding for instrument repairs, and gifts for Steinway pianos that led to Converse in 2005 becoming the first women’s college to achieve All-Steinway School designation.
Doug Weeks, Babcock Professor of Piano and longtime friend of Mr. Zimmerli, would regularly stop by the Zimmerli’s home to play the piano for them. He recalls how the Zimmerlis decided to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with a $100,000 donation toward a Steinway. They sought Weeks’ help to choose one, with Weeks spending a few hours playing a selection of pianos until Mr. Zimmerli found the appropriate one. “Kurt’s generosity was beyond words,” remarked Doug Weeks. “What he did for Converse, the community of Spartanburg, and for the Brevard Music Center will go on for generations.”
Under Mr. Zimmerli’s guidance, Converse designed and implemented a comprehensive campus master plan that focused on creating an attractive and welcoming environment. As the Buildings and Grounds Committee chair, he collaborated with Converse faculty, administrators, and students; worked with architects; negotiated with building contractors; and oversaw the design and construction of Phifer Science Hall, Milliken Fine Arts Building, and the Weisiger Center at the Sally Abney Rose Physical Activity Complex. Zimmerli Common, part of Converse’s award-winning apartment housing facility for Converse seniors known as “The Heath,” was named after Kurt and Nelly Zimmerli and is a gathering place for both large groups and smaller circles of friends, offering a fireplace, vaulted ceilings, a full kitchen and the technical capabilities necessary for performance and meeting needs.
In 2019 the Zimmerlis championed the campaign to renovate Twichell Auditorium, making a lead gift towards the renovation of the world-class performance hall on the Converse campus that was near to their hearts. In honor of their support, Converse bestowed the name Zimmerli Performance Center on the facility that houses Twichell Auditorium, which has long been hailed as one of the South’s leading performance venues.
“There is not one building that I know of on the Converse campus that his patience, skill, love for the campus, quality of engineering, and his ability to incorporate great taste into a building are not present.” – Bill Barnet
At the Zimmerli Performance Center dedication ceremony, Converse Life Trustee and former Spartanburg mayor Bill Barnet reflected on the contribution that Mr. Zimmerli made to the lives of those in the Spartanburg community. “Kurt Zimmerli and his wife Nelly entered the United States with very little resources,” Barnet said. “They moved from the Northeast to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and they built a family and a remarkable business. They created a very special understanding and appreciation for the arts and for culture, and they created an enormous impact on what you and I share today – not only in this place but in many other aspects of our community. Just think for a moment across the space that is Spartanburg – of the entrance to the library and the sculpture that is there. Of the wonderful fountain that was created at their behest to honor their friend Hans Balmer at the Spartanburg Community College campus downtown, or the amphitheater in the middle of our community that bears their name. They have done so much for our lives and it’s appropriate, I think, that we spend a moment in appreciation for what they have done…It is important to recognize that there is not one building that I know of on the Converse campus that his patience, skill, love for the campus, quality of engineering, and his ability to incorporate great taste into a building are not present. He is a project engineer but he is more than that, and he has given his life to making this campus – as he has to Spartanburg – something very special.”
Converse will be forever grateful for Kurt Zimmerli’s leadership and service to our College, and we extend our heartfelt condolences to his family as we join together in celebrating his life.