Scholarship fund set up in honor of slain Giffords aide

Colleagues pay tribute to wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords during the president's State of the Union address as the Arizona lawmaker begins the next phase of her recovery at a rehab facility in Houston.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 7:45 PM

The death of Gabriel M. Zimmerman, the aide to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) who was by her side when the first shots were fired in Tucson, has inspired two alumni of his alma mater, the University of California at Santa Cruz, to set up a scholarship fund in his honor. The scholarship would go to a student who shares Zimmerman's passion for public service.

Jonathan Klein, a partner in a San Francisco law firm, and Alex Clemens, a former political aide himself, read the accounts of how Giffords's 30-year-old director of community outreach knew how to engage the public and could calm an angry or frustrated constituent. A social worker, Zimmerman was a Tucson native who had worked for Giffords since her first campaign in 2006. He was an avid runner and was engaged to be married. He organized Saturday's "Congress on Your Corner" gathering for constituents in Arizona's 8th District.

"I felt there should be some tribute to a guy involved in public service," said Klein, 43.

"It's not a lucrative field. He just happened to be there, setting up to do his job."

Five others died in the shooting, including U.S. District Court Judge John Roll, who will be remembered at a funeral Mass on Friday morning. Among the injured were Giffords and two other aides in her Tucson office. They remain hospitalized with gunshot wounds. Ron Barber, 65, the district director who is also a social worker, was standing next to the congresswoman. Pamela Simon, her outreach coordinator, is a retired teacher who works in the office part time.

Klein and Clemens, also 43, were classmates at Santa Cruz, where Zimmerman received his undergraduate degree in sociology in 2002 before enrolling at Arizona State University for a master's degree in social work.

The friends decided to propose a scholarship to the university's Division of Social Sciences. The recipient would be a financially needy student committed to a career in public service or social justice. The department would administer the award.

First, Klein and Clemens thought they needed approval from Zimmerman's family. Klein reached Zimmerman's younger brother, Ben, a doctoral student at Brandeis University, in Tucson after many inquiries for a phone number. Klein acknowledged that he was a little nervous calling a stranger.

"But he said, 'Go for it,' " Klein said of Ben. "I told him, not only should Gabe be remembered, but we need to do something more than that.''

University leaders have been working with Klein and Clemens to raise money from staff and faculty members, and as of Thursday had received almost $7,000. Joop Rubens , associate director of development for the social sciences, said his goal is $50,000, the school's minimum for endowing the scholarship.

"Endowing is critical, because then we can honor Gabe forever and not just for a few years," Rubens said. The money would be invested and the dividends would form the backbone of the award.

Rubens said he's been on the phone with alumni and staff almost nonstop for the past few days. "There's a lot of people working on this. This was an exceptional human being."

The scholarship fund has set up a page on Facebook. Tax-deductible donations can be made to the university.

Clemens was a special assistant in the first Clinton administration and worked as a legislative aide for local officials in San Francisco before starting his own public relations and consulting firm. He said he hopes to cast a wide net for donations into the world of political staffers.

"We're going to kick down the door to let everyone know that honoring this young man would be a good thing to do," Clemens said.

A private memorial service for Zimmerman will be held in Tucson on Saturday.

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