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Eric Zeller

One man paying it forward through college scholarships

For Eric Zeller, the gift of a college education gave his family the chance for success, which manifested as a growing Rochester business. It also became the inspiration for his passion outside of the business world: funding full-ride scholarships for promising city youth. For these scholarship recipients, it’s the chance of a lifetime — a debt-free college education to any school of their choice.

A family friend sent Eric’s father, Henry, to college as a young man. That education gave him the foundation to start Zeller Electric (now called Zeller Corp.), an electric line distributor based in Rochester. Wanting to give others the chance he had, Henry sent two Zeller employees to school. After buying the company in 1986, Eric continued his father’s generosity by sending three employees to school, as well as an inner-city student. The experience had a profound impact on his life.

“I enjoyed it so much, I kept doing it,” he says.

Eric funded the first four students’ education on his own with after-tax dollars. After retiring and selling his shares in Zeller Corp. in 2001, he approached the Hillside Family of Agencies in 2002 to help administer the official program, named the E.Z. Scholarship, and provide more structure. Since then, eight more students have been awarded the E.Z. Scholarship.

Unlike other scholarships out there, it’s much more than covering tuition.

“We pay for everything,” he says. “Clothes, tuition, supplies, things they want to do on campus. We give them as much opportunity for success as we can give them.”

To be considered for the scholarship, students go through a rigorous selection process, including a review of grades and SAT scores, financial records, a written essay and a face-to-face meeting with Eric himself. Once a student is selected, he or she must sign a contract promising to maintain at least a 2.5 GPA and keep consistent communication with both Hillside and Eric.

“They’re making a promise that they will graduate. And our commitment to them is that we stick with them until they do,” says Eric.

That commitment is tested at times. Computers break, majors and even schools change, and extra tutoring may be necessary. But Eric keeps up his end of the contract, supporting the students each step of the way. He keeps in regular contact with each one, providing guidance and mentorship.

“Eric is unique,” says Shawanda Evans, the Director of Academic and Support Services at Hillside who works closely with him to administer the E.Z. Scholarship. (Together, they are currently supporting two scholarship recipients.) “He doesn’t just want to give money; he wants to mentor. He shares his experiences from his background to help the students. He can help them in ways others can’t, because of his experiences in growing his business.”

“It’s more than money; it’s time. These kids are just like my own,” says Eric, who is a father of five.

Eric passed his values on to his children at a young age, teaching them about the importance of education and to think about those who were less fortunate than they were. And while he sent them to school as well, he also taught them to walk their own path without relying on his money for success. To that end, Eric decided early on that his estate would go solely to the E.Z. Scholarship fund.

“Inheritance is a disability,” he says. “The scholarship is an enabling event, because these kids have great minds and no place to go. We give them a chance.”

His belief in the power of education made an impression upon his children, who fully support his dedication to the E.Z. Scholarship. Kurt Zeller, director of diversity programming at the University of Rochester, is proud of his father’s work and his commitment to each student.

“My father is dedicated to his scholarship program, of course financially, but even more important he is committed to the success of each scholar through their entire college experience ... in much the same way he was for us,” Kurt says.

Eric has big plans for the E.Z. Scholarship. Someday, he hopes to fund 10 to 15 students at one time. His other hope is that the program can continue long after he’s gone. Evans says that they’ve got the framework and the students and are working to grow the program to include more donors who are willing to make an investment in Rochester’s community, like Eric has.

Kurt says that his father’s work with the E.Z. Scholarship is a testament to his core belief: individuals have the power and responsibility to make their community better.

“The government is not going to solve this problem of education,” says Eric. “We’ve got to do this one person at a time. We make a change with each student.”