Take Flight

Jim Zurcher used to think he didn’t need a college degree. A lifetime of opportunity — and the Pitt scholarship he created — shows why he changed his mind.
Photography by
Johnathan Wright/Pitt Photography

With his skin still smelling of chlorine after the morning swim team workout, first-semester junior Jim Zurcher stepped into his University of Pittsburgh advisor’s office for the first time.

The advisor wasted no time on pleasantries, greeting Zurcher by saying: “You’re not going to graduate.”

The student-athlete’s answer was also straightforward: “I know, but I can still swim.”

The advisor’s warning back in 1954 didn’t concern Zurcher because a college degree had never been part of his plan. He grew up poor, living in a third-floor city apartment; and though his mother did the best she could to make ends meet for Zurcher and his brother, higher education wasn’t something the boys ever thought about.

“I knew what college was,” recalls Zurcher, “but I remember asking a friend: ‘We have the Panthers and the Steelers. Why does Pittsburgh have two football teams?’ My friend told me the Panthers represented a university.”

Zurcher says he then asked: “What’s a university?”

A standout swimmer in high school, he would soon learn more about his hometown’s university. Pitt offered him an athletic scholarship to cover everything but room and board. Zurcher accepted, figuring he could swim for four more years before getting a job in the mills. He didn’t need to attend class to achieve that future. “I did everything I could to avoid an education,” he admits. “I came to swim.”

But the advisor convinced him earning a degree was worthwhile: “That meeting was a turning point. He got me into summer school, and with hard work, I was able to graduate with a major in psychology and a minor in sociology.”

Along with swimming, Zurcher (A&S ’56) participated in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) as an undergrad — again, not for some steppingstone to his future. “I signed up because they gave me a free pair of black shoes,” he says. “By the time I was a junior, they were giving me three dollars a month, which I readily accepted.”

His degree and the ROTC turned out to be vital. After graduation, he took a commission in the U.S. Air Force, where he flew fighter jets and later Strategic Air Command planes during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That flight experience landed Zurcher at Pan American Airways, where he crisscrossed the globe for decades. He recalls living the romanticized life of an international pilot — running with the bulls in Spain, for example, and several four-day safaris with the crew on long layovers in Nairobi, Kenya.

Now retired, Zurcher, who still swims competitively, has a different outlook on college than he once did.

“I don’t know where I’d be without a degree. Without my scholarship to Pitt, there would have been no ROTC; without my degree, there would have been no commission with the Air Force.”

That perspective prompted him to create a scholarship through a current fund, which funnels money into immediate use, rather than into an endowment. “All I’m doing is paying back to somebody else what the University did for me,” explains Zurcher. “I want to help someone who couldn’t go to Pitt without some financial assistance, just like I could never have afforded an education.”

Pitt’s Office of Admissions and Financial Aid found an ideal student for the James B. Zurcher scholarship. Chloe Davis had taken out loans to pay for nearly every bit of her first semester’s tuition and housing. She had come to the sad realization that she couldn’t continue down that path and worried her first year at Pitt would be her last.

Then she learned she would receive Zurcher’s scholarship.

“All I could think of,” says Davis, “was, ‘Wait! What?! I get to go to school now?!’”

She sent Zurcher a two-page, handwritten note, stating, in part: 

“You have changed my life, and for that, I can’t thank you enough.”

The note, says Zurcher, “put a lump in my throat.” He was so moved by the gratitude of Davis (CBA ’23) that he created a second scholarship.

“This has been one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life,” he says. “It fills me with endorphins.”

Gifts: Boxed

Your annual gift to Pitt immediately results in improved access for students, enhanced outside-the-classroom programming and leading-edge research. Planned gifts can amplify your giving, ensure the sustainability of these efforts and secure your legacy.

Lorraine Sepp is honoring her husband, Henry “Hank” Sepp (ENGR ’70, ’76G, KGSB ’84), by including a bequest in her will to jointly support the University Band and a scholarship in the Swanson School of Engineering. Hank, who died in 2019, was as proud of his time with the marching band as he was of the Pitt degrees that enabled  his decadeslong career at Westinghouse.

Thomas C. (LAW ’97) and Jacqueline Indelicarto recently made an annual gift to create the Indelicarto Endowed Scholarship, which will lower financial barriers for veterans. Tom obtained his law degree after serving nine years in the U.S. Army. The Indelicartos’ gift recognizes the importance of Pitt in shaping Tom’s career.

This story was published on Aug. 23, 2023. It is part of Pitt Magazine's Fall 2023 issue.