Distinguished MSU professor dies of cancer
A fixture in the Case Hall cafeteria, Jonas Zoninsein often could be spotted sitting by himself, reading The Economist or The New York Times while eating.
The memory of the James Madison College professor sitting there, reading the paper between visits from students, sticks out in the mind of Kanika Suri, an international relations and comparative cultures and politics senior and former student of Zoninsein.
Zoninsein, a professor in James Madison College since 1990, died Monday in New York following a battle with lung cancer. He was 63.
“Before we even had him (for class), there would be a guy who read The New York Times and The Economist in the Case cafeteria,” said Suri, who studied abroad in Brazil under Zoninsein’s program. “He was completely content.”
In the e-mails Zoninsein sent from New York to his colleagues, he asked about how they were doing, their work and to the James Madison College community. He never talked to his colleagues about his health during his medical leave from MSU, which started fall 2009.
“It always was directed to others and never about himself,” said Matt Zierler, a professor in James Madison College. “Even my last e-mail from him about a month ago or a little over a month ago, it’s all about work things — so he was still engaged in trying to just keep making sure the college was doing well and we were all doing good things.”
Zoninsein had taken a medical leave from the college in the fall semester after being diagnosed with cancer, said James Madison College Dean Sherman Garnett. He moved to New York City to be with family.
His family could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
In his 20 years at MSU, Zoninsein taught a range of classes on international relations, especially developmental and poverty issues in Latin America. He cared deeply about students and always had a long line of them outside of his office door, said Zierler, who once had the office next to Zoninsein’s.
“Students would come by and see him, but there was always a line so they would come and visit me,” Zierler said. “That says a lot about the time he spent with the students. It was the same with faculty.”
A consummate teacher, Zoninsein had a lasting impact on many of his students, Garnett said. Zoninsein, who was a Brazilian citizen, founded a study abroad program in Brazil that will be in its third year this summer.
“It’s a fact of life people get sick, but it’s just very unexpected for us, and it’s hard when you have someone who’s so important to the college,” Garnett said.
Suri said students could tell Zoninsein was “genuinely happy” to share his knowledge.
“People that have interacted with him would all say that he is just very loving and he was just really happy, like he was always smiling,” Suri said. “So that’s the image I can leave you with — him smiling.”
Funeral services are expected to be held Thursday morning in New York City. Garnett said donations can be made to a soon-to-be established fund for students studying in Zoninsein’s Salvador, Brazil study abroad program.