Ten Questions: Philanthropist backs museums in Balboa Park


When Ellen Zinn came to San Diego 10 years ago, her express purpose was to enjoy a break from her hectic lifestyle in Chicago, where she lived for 34 years and served as an officer and on boards for hospitals, arts organizations and civic groups. Instead, she and her husband, Tim, found themselves immediately involved in the pulse of the city and especially interested in Balboa Park.

Between the two of them, the Zinns have served on the boards of The Old Globe, San Diego Historical Society, Timken Museum of Art and San Diego Natural History Museum.

Zinn joined Patrons of the Prado in 1999, co-chaired the successful Celebrity Dinner Soirees in her first year and joined the board. She continues her involvement with Patrons, serving twice as president and twice as gala chair. Zinn is proud of the $1.5 million given to the museums on the Prado to date.

What brought you to Rancho Santa Fe?

It pays to have friends who live in great places! One of Tim’s longtime friends suggested we look for a vacation house here. We started coming out once a month for the weekend, but the Ranch is very enticing, and before we knew it, we were packing up and on our way here to stay. It will take a crowbar to move me now.

What makes the Ranch special to you?

You cannot help but love the people--from everywhere, all smart, all creative, most of them a lot of fun. I wouldn’t be honest, however, if I didn’t admit that I sure enjoy sitting by my pool in Rancho Santa Fe in February a whole lot more than shoveling snow in Chicago. It’s tough to trip on sunshine.

If you could snap your fingers and have it done, what might you add, subtract or improve in Rancho Santa Fe


I would love to get my wonderful neighbors more involved in the cultural offerings we have in downtown San Diego. Take Balboa Park for instance. The Prado houses many of our city’s top cultural institutions amidst lush gardens and resplendent fountains in beautiful Spanish architecture.

Today these museums and theaters are among our city’s top destinations for local families and tourists from all over the world. Balboa Park is a true asset for everyone. Nothing pleases me more than seeing families and school groups happily absorbed in art or science right there in our museums.

Who or what inspires you?

Children do. They have so much potential, and we have such a short time to allow them to reach for the moon. One thing I love about Balboa Park and about Patrons of the Prado is that we raise money for the museums on the Prado so these kids can have wonderful, eye-opening experiences. We simply cannot allow San Diego’s lean pocketbook to disrupt these educational opportunities.

If you hosted a dinner party for eight, whom (living or deceased) would you invite?

I know most people list an auspicious group, ranging from Gandhi to Karl Marx, but I’ve never met a stranger, and I seem to learn something from just about everybody, so I’m happy to be surrounded by ordinary people, friends and family. Just no politicians, please.

What are you currently reading?

“Extreme Measures” by Vince Flynn. He came to the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society recently and was a hoot. And “Salt,” a fascinating book about the history of salt and the salt trade.

What is your most prized possession?

Photographs of family and friends. When I was in high school, my family home in Texas burned to the ground. We lost everything. I didn’t even get out with a pair of shoes, and my grandmother lost her only pictures of her late husband. Now, when fire season comes, I gather up all our photos and put them in a storage locker out of harm’s way.

What do you do for fun?

We travel several months of the year, belong to several food and wine groups, spend a fair amount of time on charity boards, love walking on the beach and spending time with our friends. We sit on the 50-yard line for Chargers games (just call me a glutton for punishment!), and we love the theater, especially the Shakespeare series in Balboa Park.

Describe your greatest accomplishment.

Moving here from Chicago and making my husband think it was his idea!

What is your motto or philosophy of life?

Every morning I wake up, wiggle my toes and thank God for my good luck to have been born in the best country in the world. When life deals you a lemon, make lemonade (or maybe a good glass of wine), because we all know that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.