Mel Zuckerman

An Icon of Health and Wellness

By David Pittman

Mel Zuckerman – the visionary founder of Canyon Ranch who changed the University of Arizona, the Tucson community, the resort spa industry and the world itself through his passionate promotion of health and wellness philanthropy – was honored by family, friends, admirers, educators, business leaders and associates this spring at his memorial on the UArizona campus.

Zuckerman passed away Mar. 18 surrounded by family at his home. He was 94. The public memorial honoring him was Apr. 17 before a large crowd at the university’s Health Sciences Innovation Building.

“Mel’s kindness, generosity and support of the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health have always provided inspiration to me and to everyone in our college,” said Dr. Iman Hakim, dean of the Zuckerman College of Health and host of the April tribute event. “Mel’s concern for our success and well-being continues to keep me moving forward every day.”

“Zuckerman believed in the power of healthy living,” said UArizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins, in a news release. “We are so fortunate that he and Enid also believed that partnership with the university could be a means of expanding that vision to our community and well beyond through public health education and programs designed to bring lifestyle-based disease prevention to the community.”

The Zuckermans have been overwhelmingly generous to UArizona, providing a $10 million endowment that paved the way to establish the Zuckerman College of Public Health, launched in 2000 as the first nationally accredited college of its type in the southwestern U.S. The college has graduated more than 5,000 public health students who now work promoting health and preventing disease in all 50 states and around the world.

The Zuckermans’ altruism hasn’t stopped there. Since that first $10 million gift, their foundation has more than doubled their contributions to help create the UArizona Center for Integrative Medicine and numerous scholarships for the College of Public Health. The Zuckermans also funded a new health and medical careers high school as part of the Pima Joint Technical Education District and supported dozens of local charities and religious organizations.

Dr. Richard Carmona was hired by Zuckerman as chief of health innovation at Canyon Ranch immediately after serving as the 17th U.S. Surgeon General from 2002 to 2006. Carmona and Zuckerman have been friends for 40 years and Carmona visited him at his bedside several times during his final days.

Carmona praised Zuckerman as “a genius and an unbelievable success. When it comes to health and wellness, the Canyon Ranch brand is recognized around the world at the very top of the spa resort industry. He had a big heart and was constantly thinking how he could increase democratization of health and wellness concepts to the poor.”

In 2017, the Zuckermans sold Canyon Ranch to John Goff, a patron and investor in the business for two decades. “Zuckerman was well aware he wouldn’t live forever and was confident Goff would keep Canyon Ranch at the top of the industry,” Carmona said.

Zuckerman expanded the Canyon Ranch brand throughout his ownership, also leaving Goff control of a resort in Lenox, Mass., and the Spa Fitness resort in The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

Zuckerman was born in New Jersey on May 23, 1928. After earning an accounting degree from New York University, he married Enid Slotkin in 1953 and they moved to Tucson five years later.

In those days, air-conditioning sales and population growth were booming in the Arizona desert, leading Zuckerman to drop his accounting job to start a home-building company, which did well. When Zuckerman turned 40, his doctor warned him that his health risks were equivalent to a 65-year-old man. But that wasn’t enough to get him to address his health problems. It wasn’t until 10 years later – after his father, a lifelong smoker, died of lung cancer – that Zuckerman was jolted into changing his lifestyle habits.

“I watched my father hang his head in his hands and say over and over again, ‘If only I had listened to my doctors and if only I had done this or that,’ ” Zuckermanl wrote in Canyon Ranch origin stories. “It was a true wake-up for me.”

Determined to change, he checked into a California “fat farm,” in 1978, where he dropped 40 pounds and – in an “aha! moment” – discovered his new purpose in life. “Almost immediately, I realized that the power of physical and psychological reinvention – through exercise, diet, and behavioral change – was a gift I could share with other people,” Zuckerman told BizTucson in a 2009 interview. 

With encouragement from Enid, the Zuckermans liquidated assets they earned from their real estate endeavors and poured those resources, as well as money they borrowed, to buy the dilapidated 42-acre Double U Dude Ranch near Sabino Canyon. The couple renovated old ranch buildings on the site, while conscientiously protecting the beauty of the property. Canyon Ranch opened in 1979 as the only destination spa in the Tucson area for 16 years. 

“Success was not instantaneous, but Mel and Enid persevered, long before wellness became a multi-trillion-dollar industry,” wrote Craig Oliver, president of Spas of America and editor-in-chief of Healthy Living + Travel. “Mel’s first-of-its-kind wellness resort in Tucson pioneered an integrative approach, drawing holistic methods, treatments, and evidence from western and eastern practices to address the well-being of mind, body and spirit. Embracing exercise, a healthful diet and attention to one’s mind and spirit, Canyon Ranch helped usher in the modern wellness movement.”

Several people shared remembrances of Zuckerman during the tribute in his honor. 

In the late 1970s, at the time Zuckerman was building Canyon Ranch, Jim Click and his cousin, Bob Tuttle, purchased controlling interest in Union Bank of Tucson. Shortly after taking ownership of the bank, Click said Zuckerman phoned him and said “he was short of money and needed a loan to finish the project and get the place open.” 

Initially, Click was uncertain about helping Zuckerman. “We had just bought the bank and I didn’t know a damn thing about the banking business or the resort spa business,” said Click, a highly successful Tucson auto dealer. But after Zuckerman took Click on a tour of Canyon Ranch, the loan was approved.

“That started a great friendship between Mel and I,” Click said. “We started calling each other for our community. From that point on, if Mel thought something was good for the community, he always said ‘yes.’

“When I asked him about helping a Catholic school on the south side that helped poor kids, he wrote a check. When Sabino Canyon got totally flooded, we got together and raised $2 million and the whole community got involved.” 

“Mel Zuckerman changed the world in many ways,” Click concluded. “God bless Mel Zuckerman.”

“Mel and Enid have been part of my life since 1975, almost 50 years,” said Bob Elliott, who came to Tucson from Detroit to play basketball at Arizona “Back in the day, when I was playing basketball at the university, Coach Snowden placed his players with a family, like a home away from home. I was placed with the Zuckermans.”

Elliott has been a family friend ever since.

A UArizona hoops star, Elliott advanced to the pro ranks, including three seasons with the NBA’s New Jersey Nets. He formed The Elliott Accounting Group in 1983 and serves as its president and owner.

“As I transitioned from basketball player to accountant and community member, every professional move I ever considered I checked with Mel,” Elliott said.

“My father passed away in 2002. I kept Mel informed of my father’s health. On the day I found my dad had passed, I called Mel and he consoled me – then he said, ‘You still have me.’ ”

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