Spartanburg philanthropist Kurt Zimmerli is being remembered as a skilled businessman and for his contributions to the arts, community and to higher education at Converse College.
Zimmerli, a native of Switzerland and founder of Zima, a textile machinery company, and Kusters, a paper machinery company, died at his home Sunday. He was 93.
Friend and fellow Converse Life Trustee Bill Barnet described Zimmerli as a thoughtful and skilled businessman and leader who, with his wife, Nelly, made major contributions to the beauty of Spartanburg. The Zimmerlis paid for the amphitheater in Barnet Park. In addition, the green space at the Spartanburg County Headquarters Public Library and the courtyard of the Chapman Cultural Center also are named in their honor because of their contributions to the projects.
“Their generosity of both spirit and resources is evident across the face of Spartanburg. The gift of the amphitheater and fountain in the community park, the building at Converse College bearing their name, the fountain honoring the legacy of his friend Hans Balmer and the statue at the entrance of the library — all are examples of willingly given aesthetic assets we all can share. The support of our symphony is yet another blessing we can celebrate,” Barnet said.
At Converse, he is remembered for his love of music. Zimmerli was a regular at the Carlos Moseley Chamber Music Series and led the first renovation of Twichell Auditorium in 1989. In 2019, the Zimmerlis lead efforts to renovate Twichell, making the lead gift toward the renovation. In honor of their support, Converse bestowed the name Zimmerli Performance Center on the facility that houses Twichell Auditorium.
Several years earlier, Zimmerli and his wife, Nelly co-chaired the capital campaign for the construction of the Chapman Cultural Center. The work on the capital campaign helped to raise $36 million in private gifts. The cultural center was part of a $44.5 million project.
“As a leader, he gave me courage. He was a tremendous listener for me and really helped me talk and think through the business side of the arts. He was a great mentor, a good businessman and he helped me as a leader in a great way,” Chapman Cultural Center President and CEO Jennifer Evins said. “He supported so many things that were about making Spartanburg a really special place.”
Zimmerli moved from Massachusetts to Spartanburg in 1970 and quickly got involved in the community.
He served on Converse’s Board of Trustees and was named a Life Trustee in 2004. He also served as chairman of both the Finance Committee and the Buildings and Grounds Committee where he oversaw the design and construction of several of the college’s facilities, including the Milliken Fine Arts Building.
Education also was a focus for Zimmerli and he provided scholarships to students in the Petrie School of Music and endowments for instrument repairs and was instrumental in Converse’s All-Steinway School designation in 2005. However, one of the most touching contributions Zimmerli made to the Petrie School of Music was his 50th anniversary to his wife, Nelly — a Steinway piano, now known as the Zimmerli Steinway, which sits in the Daniel Recital Hall.
“He is somebody, I think, who loved music and loved the arts and wanted to make sure that the rest of the community had the opportunity to experience them, and that to me was what was really special. The love, in addition to the support,” said Chris Vaneman, director of the Petrie School of Music.
Vaneman said Zimmerli continued to take a strong interest in the college and its future, even as his health declined. Vaneman and Babcock Professor Emeritus of Piano Doug Weeks would visit Zimmerli regularly, to play music for him and talk about the goings on at Converse.
“He enjoyed talking about music. He enjoyed talking, even to the end, about what was going on at Converse and plans for Converse. What would be the best way to get the most good students to Converse, and the most good students studying music,” Vaneman said.
Zimmerli received numerous honors for his work in the arts and the community. In 2002, he was honored with the Dexter Edgar Converse Award, the college’s highest honor. He was also a recipient of the Neville Holcombe Award, the David Reid Award, and the Spartanburg Kiwanis Club’s Citizen of the Year Award.
His friends remember him as a well-rounded gentleman with many interests.
“He really enjoyed playing golf and traveling. He was a big-time skier and he was an outdoorsman in the sense that he loved being active,” Evins said. “I would say he was very balanced because he enjoyed the arts; he enjoyed being athletic; he enjoyed being a businessman, and he had deep friendships.”
He is survived by his wife, Nelly, daughter Kathy Zimmerli Wofford and son Mark Zimmerli.
J.F. Floyd Mortuary is handling funeral arrangements. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorials be made to Friends of the Petrie School of Music or Spartanburg Regional Home Care Hospice.
Samantha Swann covers Spartanburg County K-12 schools and colleges and the food scene in downtown and beyond. She is a University of South Carolina Upstate and Greenville Technical College alumna. Contact her at [email protected]