By Dianna Smith
Robert Zelle spent his life giving to others.
He volunteered for years at various places such as schools and medical centers
while living part of the year in Gulf Stream and the other in Nashville and
while building his reputation as a successful businessman.
Mr. Zelle died June 12 at the age of 86, leaving behind a football field of mourners who appreciated Zelle’s dedication to their causes.
At the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, a nonprofit group that works with
donors who support local communities, of which Mr. Zelle was one of the
founders, President Ellen Lehman said Mr. Zelle was always someone she could
“I remember how enormously generous he was and how he coupled his compassion with
a businessman’s sense of, as he used to say, ‘kicking the tires,’ ” Lehman
said. “He approached his charitable investments with zest, but with an ironclad
conviction that he should use the standard of appraisal as he did with his
Mr. Zelle served as a pilot and instrument instructor in World War II before
accepting a job as executive vice president of Life and Casualty Insurance
Company of Tennessee in Nashville. After retiring in 1970, he continued working
with the company in the sales and marketing department and he began to invest
in private companies. Then, 10 years later, he founded Reel Broadcasting
Company and WZTV-Channel 17, Nashville’s first independent television station.
He volunteered on several boards, including ones at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the University School of Nashville and Alive Hospice.
His only son, Robert Zelle Jr., died in a car accident in 1972. To keep his memory
alive, Mr. Zelle and his wife, Anne, dedicated themselves to the boarding
school their son graduated from — the Darlington School in Rome, Georgia. Mr.
Zelle became a board member there and dedicated a patio as well as a fountain
in his son’s honor. He found a sketch of a fountain as he sifted through his
son’s things after he died and was so moved by the drawing that he had it built
on the school campus.
Pam Morgan, the school’s advancement officer, described her friend as quiet, intelligent and always on the go.
“Until the last five years of his life … he was very active in Florida,” she said. “He
told me one time that his social life was very rigorous (in Gulf Stream) and
that he rested in Nashville.”
His wife, Anne, said through tears that he was a very special person. “Very quiet and very caring for other people.”
A graveside service was held in Nashville in mid-June and the family requests
that memorial donations be made to the Darlington School in memory of Mr. Zelle
or to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.