Published April 27, 2009
ATHENS, Ga. – Two people who knew college professor George Zinkhan early in his career described him as an ambitious and gifted academic with a promising future, but recent students at the University of Georgia said Zinkhan seemed disorganized and distant.
Police were searching Sunday for the 57-year-old marketing professor in the shooting deaths of his wife and two men outside a community theater in Athens, about 70 miles east of Atlanta. Zinkhan was last seen dropping his two young children off at his neighbor's house after the Saturday afternoon shootings, saying there was an emergency and he needed someone to watch them.
"If you gave me a list of 100 people who might crack in this way, I would have put him at the bottom of that list," said Michael R. Hyman, a marketing professor at New Mexico State University. Hyman knew Zinkhan in the mid-1980s when both were associate professors at the University of Houston.
Zinkhan was highly regarded for his abilities and his intellect, enjoyed writing poetry and was a bit of a history buff, Hyman said. He was collegial and never showed violent tendencies or even raised his voice.
Hyman and a former doctoral student of Zinkhan's at the University of Houston, Richard Tansey, both said they were shocked to hear Zinkhan was accused of shooting anyone, and said they never knew him to use or talk about guns.
Killed Saturday afternoon were Zinkhan's wife, Marie Bruce, 47, Tom Tanner, 40, and Ben Teague, 63. All were members of a local theater group, and the shooting occurred during a reunion for past and present group members. Two others were injured by shrapnel.
Josh Gurley, 21, is a junior at the school and was taking a marketing class from Zinkhan this semester.
Little more than a week ago, Zinkhan surprised students by saying he would give them their grades for the semester and they wouldn't have to take the previously announced final exam if they were satisfied with that grade.
Gurley said he was shocked when he heard about the shooting. Zinkhan was clearly intelligent and interested in the subject, but was disorganized and seemed "a little off" and unapproachable, he said.
"He never seemed like he went above and beyond to try to reach out to students," Gurley said.
David Felfoldi, who took an honors class on e-commerce taught by Zinkhan in 2001, said that when he heard that a UGA professor had shot three people, he wondered if it might be Zinkhan.
"I thought that if any professor I knew at UGA was going to do something like that, it would be him," Felfoldi said. "He seemed the most unstable and peculiar, not violent unstable but just not all there."
That description marks a sharp contrast with Tansey's memories from 20 years ago.
"He was not only very handsome, but he was a very gentle soul," Tansey said. "He was not a hard-charging academic. He was very laid back and created a nurturing environment that appealed to his students."
But Tansey also cited a driving ambition and said Zinkhan would sometimes put his name on an article mostly written by a student, both to get his name out there but also to use his own prestige to get a student's work published.
"He used people, but he used them in a nice way," Tansey said.
Zinkhan joined the faculty of UGA's Terry College of Business in 1994. He graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1974 with a degree in English literature and went to the University of Michigan, where he got a business degree in 1979 and a doctorate in marketing in 1981.
His curriculum vitae, posted on the business school's Web site, is 40 pages long and details a prolific academic career spread over more than 30 years. It lists several books he edited or co-authored, more than 100 journal articles he wrote or co-wrote and many other publications, and research and consulting activities.
There are 22 works listed under a section headlined "Research Activities: Poetry." The Web site of the American Marketing Association features a collection of 16 poems called "Marketing as Life" by Zinkhan.
In one, titled "B-school Politics" written in April 2004, Zinkhan writes that professors have to teach "many, many (extra) classes" with "vague promises" that things will get better. The last stanza reads, "the dark department head is always lurking,/making the rounds with a crooked, yankee-trader smile,/full of false promise about a better time to come."