Orange County

Life Stories: Victor Zinn helped young and old with trauma

Victor Zinn
Victor Zinn PHOTO COURTESY OF DONNA ZINN

Josh Zinn was clearing out his father’s office when he came across the old dollhouse. His father, Victor, had used it, along with board games and a few other toys, in his private practice as a psychotherapist.

Victor Zinn spent 42 years working with children and adults alike, helping them heal from trauma, gain insight to their lives, and equipping them with the skills to move forward. The dollhouse was a way for his younger clients to feel safe, perhaps to reenact their troubles with the toy version of their households, or simply to become comfortable enough to open up.

Finding it made Josh Zinn smile. His father was known for turning play into an opportunity for growth. He was a hands-on dad, and coached Josh Zinn in tennis, helping him compete at the professional level. More recently, Victor Zinn taught side by side with his son on Chapel Hill courts, bringing that same encouragement, both athletically and personally, that defined his therapy career.

“He wasn’t just a tennis teacher, he was a life teacher,” said Josh Zinn, one of his three sons. “You couldn’t imagine a better father.”

Zinn taught tennis and saw therapy clients through much of his nearly three-year battle against non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He recently succumbed to the disease at 72.

His wife, Donna, still can’t believe how loving he was 17 years into their relationship.

“I think Victor’s essence was love, taking care of each other,” Donna Zinn said. “Even when he was so sick, his clients would wait for him. They really didn’t want to let him go.”

Advocate for many

Zinn was raised in Great Neck, N.Y., one of four boys. His athletic prowess was evident from the start, his family said, and he played varsity sports while a student at Brandeis University in Boston. The St. Louis Cardinals invited him to attend spring training, but the young pitcher chose to pursue his career in psychology sooner rather than later.

He did, however, spend a year between graduate schools working as a professional disco dancer in New York City. He was paid to warm up the dance floor, first dancing with other pros, then gradually pulling in the wallflowers until the floor was full. He never lost his love of dancing, especially with his wife.

In 1972 he moved to Chapel Hill to help establish the TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children) Autism Program at UNC.

Molly McConnell, a longtime child advocate, met Zinn early in his career in North Carolina. He was among the pioneers pushing for greater resources for children with developmental disabilities.

“There was nothing for them in the state of North Carolina in the early ’70s. Zip. Nada,” she said. “Anybody who came into Victor’s office – he was going to be their advocate.”

Within a few years of moving to Chapel Hill, Zinn established a private practice. His favorite clients, his family said, were children and couples, but he took on as many clients as he could.

McConnell counts herself among those he helped. Recently she sought his expertise with grief counseling. She was struck by his therapeutic style, how he listened without judgment, without forcing a label upon her feelings.

His neighbor and tennis buddy Bill Pope took advantage of the workshops Zinn organized on the shore.

“He would often do workshops on self growth; that was an integral part of my life. They really allowed people to be authentic with each other,” Pope said. “He was someone who really was guided by a higher source, which was love. I think he personified that in his dealings with people.”

‘Take more time’

Zinn was raised Jewish, and sought out spirituality in many forms over the years. For a long time he practiced Buddhism, but converted to Catholicism about five years ago. He considered himself a “Buddhist Catholic,” and was baptized at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Chapel Hill.

Long before his cancer diagnosis, Zinn demonstrated a deep appreciation for life and the opportunity to love. He and his wife vowed never to go to bed angry with one another, making sure they’d talked things through before turning out the lights.

He appreciated his time here so much that even after his bones were too brittle to support his once-athletic frame, a femur and an arm having crumbled under his weight in recent months, he refused to count himself out.

As a catechumen, or convert, preparing to be baptized, Zinn said, “People would do well to have a greater appreciation of the fact that they have the opportunity to be alive and to experience love from other people, as well as from God. ... I would encourage people to take more time to be quiet and listen to what they hear inside, to listen to what other people have to say to them as well.”

Just last week, Donna Zinn received three large bouquets of roses. They were from Victor—he’d arranged them in the days before he died.

Victor Irving Zinn

Born Jan. 6, 1943.

FAMILY: Is married twice and has three sons, Adam, Omar, and Josh, before marrying Donna Zinn in 1999. He welcomes stepchildren Edward Aul III and Juliana Aul, and has seven grandchildren.

EDUCATION: Earns undergraduate degree from Brandeis University, followed by graduate degrees from Ohio University and Clark University, including a doctorate in psychology.

CAREER: After a brief stint as a professional disco dancer in New York, Zinn helps establish the TEACCH Autism Program at UNC. He later establishes a private psychotherapy practice, and teaches tennis professionally.

Dies Jan. 26, 2015, in Chapel Hill.

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