Almost exactly 25 years ago, Jeffrey A. Zucker ’86 was in the middle of his graduation ceremony at Mather House when he received a phone call. It was NBC. The network hired him later that day as a researcher for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.
Zucker’s phone has been ringing off the hook ever since. As one of America’s most prominent television executives, Zucker quickly ascended the ranks at NBC, and was named President and CEO in 2007 at just 41 years old.
But friends and colleagues say that the intelligence, drive, and ambition which have served Zucker in his career were evident long before he began his explosive rise in the television industry.
A HUNGRY UNDERGRAD
Zucker’s passion for media first developed as a young man growing up in southeast Florida. In high school, he not only served as editor of the school newspaper, but also worked as a freelance reporter for The Miami Herald and attended Northwestern University’s prestigious High School Institute for journalists.
Steven A. Nussbaum ’86, his freshman and sophomore year roommate at Harvard, describes Zucker’s interest in writing as practically palpable.
“Jeff was extremely focused and driven,” Nussbaum says. “From the day he arrived at Harvard, he knew he wanted to write for The Crimson.”
Entering his first comp meeting for the publication’s sports section, Zucker was immediately sized up by Michael J. Bass ’83, the sports editor at the time.
“He was a scrawny kid from Miami who wore a down coat starting in October and was already a helluva good writer,” says Bass. “My first impressions were that he was smart as hell, creative, a bit cocky, and had a determination to succeed that was unbelievable.”
Another Crimson writer, Rebecca H. Hartman Edwards ’85, says she sought to mentor the ambitious freshman.
“I was a year older and took him under my wing ... or so I thought,” she says. “In less than a year, he was the Sports Editor, handing out my assignments and editing my copy.”
Edwards also lived in Mather House with Zucker, casting him as a janitor in the house’s soap opera parody, “Mathering Heights.” This willingness to partake in a playful theatrical role underscored the balance between Zucker’s intense drive and love of having fun.
Later becoming President of The Crimson, he continued the storied rivalry with The Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. Zucker even once caught Lampoon President Conan O’Brien ’85 stealing copies of the newspaper and had him arrested.
“It all seems a little silly in hindsight, like college hijinks, but back then it seemed important and fun,” Zucker says.
PURSUING THE DREAM
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