Alumni Spotlight: Marty Zelnik '61, Hall of Fame Class of 2006, Tennis and More

Left to right: Marty Zelnik juggling sports equipment in his Brandeis days; Marty today at Mocassin Wallow Golf Club; and Marty standing at tennis net, holding a racquet, with Bud Collins.

Alumni Spotlights are Q&A's with former Brandeis student-athletes, across a myriad of disciplines, as they reflect on their Brandeis experience and how it has shaped their lives today. Read more spotlight features here

Name: Martin Zelnik '61
Job Title: Architect (semi-retired)
Institution: Panzel Associates

Marty Zelnik '61 was a Renaissance man for Brandeis Athletics in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Unrecruited out of high school for football, he eventually lettered in five different sports as a Judge: football, fencing, basketball, soccer, and primarily tennis. He was a teammate of Abbie Hoffman '58's and played under Bud Collins. As a member of the tennis team, he led Brandeis to a 30-3 record between 1959 and 1961, playing #1 or #2 singles and #1 doubles. Zelnik was inducted into the Brandeis Hall of Fame in 2006.
After graduating from Brandeis, Zelnik attended Columbia University for architecture and spent many years at his own firm, Panzel Associates.  He went on to teach as a full professor of Interior Design at SUNY/Fashion Institute of Technology, including becoming chair of the Interior Design Department and President of the Faculty Senate - and also coaching the men's tennis team for a stint. Zelnik co-authored three major design publications, including Human Dimension and Interior Space: A Source Book of Design Reference Standards. Now semi-retired, Zelnik is active in community action as related to zoning in New York, while also co-owning the 18-hole Moccasin Wallow Golf Club golf course in Palmetto, Florida, near Sarasota/Tampa, with his son, Noah.

Describe your overall experience as a student-athlete. What does it mean to you now/what did it mean to you while you were an undergraduate?

I was an unrecruited “student-athlete.” In those days, ‘57-‘61, the only recruited athletes were for football, basketball, baseball, and track. My varsity sports in high school were football, basketball, and tennis. I was honorable mention All-City in New York as an offensive and defensive end. I thought I might try out for the freshman team after orientation. Little did I know that about 25-30 freshmen had already been recruited, given financial aid, and had been practicing. At that point, I decided not to even try out as I was too far behind the student-athletes who had been on campus for two weeks. 

What originally attracted you to Brandeis as a student-athlete?

My attraction to Brandeis was inspired in two ways. My initial awareness of Brandeis was when I was a camper-waiter at a sleep-away camp in the Pocono Mountains: Camp Onibar! The head waiter was Julie Bernstein, a distinguished labor attorney and Brandeis benefactor later on in his life. He had attended and recently graduated from Brandeis - class of 1957. Julie would hold court in the waiters' bunks, infusing our innocent minds with discussions about civil rights, social justice, the ACLU, and why we should all apply to Brandeis. That waiters bunk produced 5-6 future Brandeisians!

The other factor was watching on live TV a college basketball game between Brandeis and NYU. In those days, it was comparable to a D-3 college vs a D-1 program. At the time, Brandeis was a highly rated “small college” team with a 6-1 1/2” Little All-American center named Rudy Finderson, and also had had several NYC/Jersey players. NYU was ranked top-10 in the country with future NBA stars on the team. To this day, I “ qvell” about the 13-point Brandeis win. That win tipped the scale. Brandeis was my first choice by far.

How did your time as a student and student-athlete at Brandeis prepare you for your career and life after college?

I was a Fine Arts major at Brandeis, as I probably knew that I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and become an architect. In those days, all art classes were held in the lower level of Shapiro. Accordingly, while taking painting and sculpture classes, I would be exposed to all the members of the various sports teams and coaches, especially basketball and football. Needless to say, once I started playing multiple sports at Brandeis, the concept of “chewing gum and walking at the  same time” became a requirement….another way to put it was learning how to “ multi-task.” I developed a work ethic that morphed later in life into architecture grad school at Columbia while working part-time and starting a family. 

Ultimately, my professional career has resulted in having my own practice of architecture, teaching as a full professor of Interior Design at SUNY/FIT including becoming chair of the Interior Design Dept, President of the Faculty Senate, co-authoring three major design publications, obtaining major grants, coaching men’s tennis at FIT, running an architectural office, and investing in real estate: All that while having a family and married now for over 59 years. 

Do you have any advice for current or future Brandeis Student-Athletes?

My advice to current or future Brandeis student-athletes is to follow your hearts academically and athletically. With very few exceptions, none of us will become professional athletes or even continue to play competitive sports post-Brandeis. Take advantage of every activity you can while at Brandeis. If you love a sport and are competitive at it, pursue it for the pure love of playing the game.

What do you miss most about your Brandeis experience?

Brandeis was a relatively small college at the time….1100 or so undergrads. There was an intimacy and sense of family among classmates, faculty, staff, and teammates. I miss that today, although my Class of ‘61 remains extremely close through Zoom and overall social interactions.

What personal or professional accomplishments are you most proud of since you graduated?

As for personal or professional accomplishments, I think I’ve covered most in the body of my response. As of late, I remain busy but semi-retired as an architect. My latest pursuits have been in the area of public service, community action as related to zoning, serving as VP of the Bronx Chapter American Institute of Architects, and most thrilling for me, co-ownership of the 18-hole Moccasin Wallow Golf Club golf course in Palmetto, Florida, near Sarasota/Tampa, with my youngest son, Noah, a pro golfer who played on the PGA and Nike Tours and caddied for several top PGA players. (Special rates available to Brandeis alumni!) I don’t play golf but I am permitted to mow fairways and greens when staff doesn’t show.

 (this interview was lightly edited for clarity)