LEWISBURG, Pa. — Friends and family celebrated the life of "Mr. Bucknell," John F. Zeller III, and remembered his devotion to service both on and off campus during a memorial service held Sunday, Dec. 12, in Rooke Chapel at Bucknell University.
Zeller, a 1941 graduate of Bucknell who studied and served at the University in several capacities over 68 years, including as vice president for Administration and Finance and general counsel, passed away on Wednesday, Dec. 8, at his home in Lewisburg. He was 91. || The Daily Item obituary
"John was devoted to his family, as well as to his community, his church, his university, his country," longtime friend Irving Williams said during a eulogy in which he described Zeller's dedication, faith and sense of humor.
The Rev. MacKenzie Scott of First Baptist Church in Lewisburg quoted former President Woodrow Wilson in describing Zeller's commitment to helping others: "There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed."
"These are values that which John has imbued from his earliest years" in his home, church, school and the many organizations he supported in Lewisburg and with the people he worked with at the University, Scott said. "They all accepted the idea that self-forgetting service to others was a fundamental responsibility in life."
Past Bucknell President Gary Sojka, who served much of his presidency at Bucknell with Zeller, called his former colleague the "exemplar first citizen of the University." Zeller could have followed any number of career paths, Sojka said, because of his extensive experience, education and ability, but "he came here, where his heart was and because of his extraordinary sense of community service" and desire to teach, Sojka said.
In fact, Sojka pointed out, Zeller's legacy at Bucknell is remembered in his own words displayed at the entry to the Bertrand Library: "We are all teachers here."
Zeller, who grew up in Lewisburg, earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from Bucknell and was a charter member of Bucknell's chapter of Phi Beta Kappa before serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. He later earned his law degree at the University of Pennsylvania before serving in the Korean War, for which he earned a Bronze Star.
Zeller returned to Bucknell after Korea to teach, but because of his leadership skills was soon appointed to the administration and promoted to vice president for business and fiscal affairs. He later served simultaneously as general counsel. He served as acting president in 1984.
During his long years of service he made numerous contributions to the excellence of Bucknell, according to his former colleagues, including:
• Leadership in overseeing the development of dozens of buildings on campus.
• Strengthening the relationship between Bucknell and the local community.
• Helping to increase the endowment by 20-fold to more than $100 million, including Bucknell's first fully endowed faculty chair.
Zeller retired in 1986. He and his wife, Martha, continued to be active members of the Bucknell family, participating in and attending many University events. He enjoyed participating in the annual recognition of the Zeller Award, which recognizes a member of the support staff who demonstrates consistent excellence in the conduct of his or her responsibilities.
"As an alumnus and administrative leader, John dedicated his time, wisdom and expertise to ensuring the excellence of a Bucknell University education for generations of students," said Bucknell President John Bravman in a note to campus last week. "John's colleagues called him 'creative and innovative,' 'wise,' 'witty,' 'generous' and 'compassionate.' They also described him as a 'moral model' for students, faculty and administrative colleagues. John's dedication to the University for more than six decades earned him the nickname 'Mr. Bucknell.'"
During Bucknell's 2010 Commencement ceremony, Zeller was honored with the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. As recently as last month, he attended the home opener of the men's basketball season and was recognized at a special half-time presentation for his lifetime of service and dedication to his beloved Bucknell. Through the generosity of the Charles B. Degenstein Foundation, the Sojka Pavilion video board was named in his honor.
He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Martha Harris Zeller; their three children, Marijane M. Zeller (Majie) and her husband, David Kravitz, of Medford, Mass.; John F. Zeller IV (Jack), his wife, Pat Zeller, of Holland, Pa., and their sons, Brian Zeller and Grant Zeller '12; and Margaret H. Zeller (Meg) of Wyoming, Ohio, and her children, Anna Helen Sponaugle, William Harris Sponaugle, and Peter John Sponaugle; and many good friends.
On Sunday, his friend Irving Williams recounted how Zeller wrote a poem as a young soldier that spoke to his desire to serve and help others. Williams read aloud the poem, which ends,
Lord, take what light there is in me And make of it a beacon To light the way through this dark hour To a new and better day.
Memorial contributions may be made in Zeller's memory to the First Baptist Church of Lewisburg, 51 S. Third St., Lewisburg, PA 17837, or The John F. and Martha H. Zeller Scholarship at Bucknell.
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