Marvin Zonis could explain hundreds of years of history in minutes.
It made him a popular professor during more than half a century of teaching at the University of Chicago.
Journalists relied on him to help them understand complex conflicts around the globe.
He was a favorite of “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, who frequently called on Mr. Zonis for analysis during the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis in which more than 50 Americans were held captive after the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Koppel’s ABC show became a nightly ritual for millions of Americans riveted by their plight.
Mr. Zonis, a professor emeritus of business administration, died Nov. 15 at the University of Chicago Medical Center. He was 84 and had been in declining health, according to his daughter Nadia Eleanor Zonis.
“Professor Zonis’ leadership class had a profound impact on my perspective and growth — I still have my notes from his class on my shelf today,” said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. “He was able to open my eyes to the importance of the inner life of leadership rather than focusing on perceived outward accomplishments.”
Bruce Rigal said when Mr. Zonis taught him and his classmates about Afghanistan in the late 1980s, “It was hard for us to understand the significance — we were all young, focused on economics and finance and Wall Street careers.”
“Marvin was prescient,” said Rigal, who directs the Institute of Business, Law and Society at St Mary’s University in London. “If you look back at the past 30 years, Afghanistan has had a huge effect with the Taliban, with Osama bin Laden, with so many other things.”
Mr. Zonis was an encouraging mentor to students who were the first in their families to attend college. Maureen Loughnane was one.
“My mother did not go to college and dad was a cop,” she said. He asked her to be a teaching assistant. “Professor Zonis recognized right away I had a strong work ethic.”
“He had an amazing ability to inspire confidence,” she said. “I would not have the career I have today without him.” Loughnane is executive director of the Chicago office of Facing History and Ourselves, an educational nonprofit that encourages students to oppose racism and bigotry.
Thurston Bailey said he was one of a handful of Black male students in the Class of 1993. Mr. Zonis “made you feel the world was your oyster,” he said. The professor wrote recommendations for him to attend law school. Bailey is an attorney in Chicago.
“In addition to being an outstanding scholar, Marvin was an incredibly popular professor who made a lasting impact on his students,” said Madhav Rajan, dean of the Booth School of Business.
“He was the greatest person for advice,” said his daughter Brix Smith Start. “Me and all my girlfriends would say, ‘What would Marvin do?’ ’’
Rigal helped create the university’s Marvin Zonis International Scholarship. Recipients have included students from Bangladesh, Ghana, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe.
“Marvin would order winter coats for them from Eddie Bauer, the whole thing — jackets, hats, gloves — so they could get through the winters,” said his wife Lucy Salenger, former head of the Illinois Film Office.
A son of Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Massachusetts. His mother, Clara, was from Ukraine. His father, Leonard, from Belarus, worked his way up from garment cutter to clothing factory owner, according to Nadia Eleanor Zonis. His curiosity about other cultures was stoked with books by 1930s adventurer Richard Halliburton, who wrote “The Flying Carpet” about his travels in a biplane by that name.
At Belmont High School, he participated in an exchange program in which he lived with a family in Greece. After graduating, he wanted to experience rustic travel. “He and a friend rode mopeds around Italy,” said another daughter, Leah Zonis Harp.
He got a bachelor’s degree at Yale University, studied at Harvard Business School, and went on to earn a doctorate in political science from MIT.
His dissertation analyzed the political regime in Iran. To interview the ruling elite, he and his first wife Ella Mahler lived in Tehran from 1963 to 1965. To get there, “They hitchhiked through Afghanistan,” said Leah Zonis Harp. “Families would welcome them in their homes and give them almonds from their trees.”
Seeking approval for his research, Mr. Zonis was granted an audience with the Shah of Iran. “I’m the graduate student kid who has an interview with his majesty, and I am really nervous,” he recalled in an Iranian PressTV interview. Afterward, “I was so nervous,” he said, “that I couldn’t open the door.” The shah had to get up from his desk to let him out.
When a Tehran newspaper reported on a piano performance by his then-wife, they were contacted by another family who shared the name Zonis. It turned out they were distant relatives. Later, Mr. Zonis helped them immigrate from Iran to the U.S.
“He was our hero,” said Isabel Karceski, one of those cousins. Thanks to his sponsorship, she arrived in the U.S. at age 10 with her family. She became a pharmacist and her brothers Patrick and Christian Sanvanson are physicians. “He gave us the opportunity to be here.”
Mr. Zonis also studied at the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute. “He used the insights to try and understand what was going on in the minds of political leaders,” said Robert Aliber, another professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.
His books include “Majestic Failure: The Fall of the Shah.” Corporations sought Mr. Zonis’ advice on geopolitical business risks.
He and his wife spent summers in a home built around a deconsecrated 11th century church in Umbria, Italy, where he delighted in the region’s beauty and food. He also loved Persian cuisine, especially tahdig, the golden rice from the bottom of the pot.
Mr. Zonis could converse in Arabic, Farsi, French, Hebrew and Italian, according to his wife and daughters.
A natty dresser, his photo was once featured in an ad campaign for clothier Bigsby & Kruthers.
He is also survived by two grandsons. A private memorial will take place after the pandemic, relatives said.
Don Michael Randel, a former president of the University of Chicago who’d been living in Ithaca, New York, in retirement, said his recent move to Hyde Park came about in part because of his friendship with Mr. Zonis and his wife.
“He sent me a picture from his window of a rainbow over Lake Michigan and it sort of catalyzed our desire to come back to Chicago,” said Randel. A month ago, he and his wife Carol moved into the same building as their friends. But due to the pandemic, the couples weren’t able to socialize.
“Now here we are and he’s gone,” Randel said. “It’s poignant that we came, in some sense, to Chicago to be with them, and he’s taken from us.”