Most faculty members who retire after a distinguished academic career have great memories to recount with friends and colleagues. For Dr. Tom Zorn, George B. Cook/Ameritas College Professor of Finance, his memories of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln not only included an amazing journey before arriving in Lincoln 30 years ago, but also the honor of receiving the Distinguished Teaching, Research and Service award at his retirement reception in May.
Zorn’s path to Nebraska started after World War II. His family lived in Prague, Czechoslovakia and although times had been difficult, his father managed to build a successful business. Then events in Eastern Europe changed plans for everyone.
“There was a coup in the country and the communists took over,” Zorn said. “My folks decided for the second time in their lives to flee the country. We went through a border town after telling the authorities we were going somewhere else. Czech soldiers escorted us into Germany and we applied to come to the United States.”
After three years in Germany, Zorn’s family arrived in America. He was 10 years old when they settled on the east coast. When they heard there were better opportunities in California the family headed west.
Zorn’s older brother Gunther, who never went to school more than a few weeks for most of his life, eventually received a high school degree and then got his bachelor’s from UCLA. Tom Zorn followed in his brother’s footsteps, receiving both his BA and Ph.D. from UCLA. He then began teaching at various local schools including UCLA, Cal-State Northridge and Cal-State Fullerton.
After a temporary appointment at the University of Arizona, which he accepted to replace a professor who was tragically killed after falling out of a window in Mexico, Zorn began interviewing at top notch schools such as Northwestern, Stanford and Texas.
The difference between those schools and Nebraska was the people Zorn met.
“I liked the people I met at Nebraska. Unlike the other schools, Dean Gary Schwendiman from the College of Business kept calling me which made it feel like they really wanted me here.”
Although he had already accepted an offer from the University of Texas, complications with their Dean led Zorn to Nebraska.
“I didn’t make a big deal about it because I wanted to come to Nebraska. I found out Lincoln is a very family oriented town. It was nice raising kids here but that wasn’t the reason I stayed. It was because I was treated really well. I liked the people in the department and long-time chair Manfred Peterson.”
Zorn immediately excelled teaching big auditorium lecture classes and continued that throughout his tenure. He was also instrumental in revising the curriculum of both the MBA program and the Ph.D. program in finance. He co-authored 21 journal articles with former Ph.D. students and several of those students made the trip back to Nebraska for his retirement reception and award presentation.
“It was extremely flattering to get that award,” Zorn said, “and an incredible way to end my career here. I was totally surprised because I didn’t think that on my way out the door I’d ever get an award like that. To have my colleagues think that highly of me – I choke up just thinking about it.”
Zorn mentored many Ph.D. students including Robert Johnson who went on to become the head of instruction at the Chartered Financial Analysts Association – the number one licensing group in the financial industry.
Dr. Donna Dudney, associate professor of finance at UNL, experienced Zorn as both a student and a colleague.
“Tom has had an amazing career,” Dudney said. “He has been published in the top finance journals, but he remains approachable and willing to help younger faculty members as they start their publishing careers. His footprints will be hard to fill.”
One of Zorn’s greatest appreciations is having been able to work with so many outstanding graduate students.
“Our graduate students were once named in the top five university departments for students who produced the most publications in top tier journals. That included elite schools like Yale, Harvard and MIT.
“My biggest regret in retiring is that the college is ready to be part of the Big Ten, we have a new dynamic dean and I think that’s really going to be exciting. Every one of the Big Ten schools is strong in finance. For us to be associated with them is great for our students."
Even Zorn’s retirement was put on hold this summer as he agreed to teach one last managerial economics class, where he undoubtedly provided one more spark of inspiration to one last business student before closing the book on his remarkable teaching career.