Honoring Van Zissi, D62, DG67, A02P

Tufts community members pay tribute to a beloved professor of endodontics, lacrosse enthusiast, and valued alumni volunteer
A professional headshot of Van Zissi with white hair, glasses and white coat

Vangel “Van” Zissi, D62, DG67, A02P, a widely admired clinical professor emeritus at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and the former director of continuing education at the dental school, died on December 24, 2023. He was 87.

Remembered as a spirited leader with a booming voice who was devoted to helping others, Zissi—or Doc Z, as he was known to many—had endless enthusiasm for three things: endodontics, lacrosse, and Tufts. 

In those realms, he inspired countless individuals. Having been one of the first people to earn two degrees from Tufts’ endodontics program, he subsequently joined the faculty and helped further develop the program, while also working hard to support his former students in their careers. 

As a lacrosse aficionado, he attended as many Jumbo lacrosse games as possible—home and away—for more than 20 years, serving as the unofficial dentist and an honorary coach of the Tufts men’s team. 

And as an alumnus, he tirelessly supported the school, volunteering for many years as director and president of the Dental Alumni Association; creating, with his wife, Barbara, an endowed scholarship fund for Tufts dental students; and encouraging other alumni to participate in events and join him in offering financial support.

“Doc Z loved Tufts so much, and he wanted to instill the same love for the university in each generation of graduates,” said Ben Smith, D19, who treasured Zissi as a role model, and who became president of his class on the strength of Zissi’s encouragement. “He was devoted to so many students, but especially to the presidents and leadership of each class, because he believed in our potential to be a force for good as future Tufts alumni.”

An Inspiring Mentor

More than anything, Smith said, Zissi was a dedicated professional guide. “He was more than a mentor—he did everything in his power to support me, always showing me the right path, like a guardian angel. But it wasn’t just me; he was a mentor in that way for so many people. He cast such a wide net. His enthusiasm was influential and uplifting—he made everyone around him feel good and want to be the best versions of themselves.”

Robert Amato, D80, DG83, feels the same way. Though he met Zissi decades before Smith did, encountering him as a dental school student in the late 1970s, Amato found Zissi to be just as inspiring.

“I was interested in endodontics, and I asked an administrator if I could talk to a faculty member about pursuing a career in it. I met with Dr. Zissi, and he couldn’t have had more enthusiasm,” recalled Amato. “He loved what he did so much. By the end of the conversation, I didn’t know if I was going to become an endodontist because of my appreciation for the science and practice of the field or because of his enthusiasm,” Amato joked. 

Part of his effectiveness as a mentor came from his ability to teach in different ways, said Amato. He could be tough—“but in the service of making sure his students got better.” Amato remembered one instance when, a few months into the endodontics program, he had completed work on a patient in the training clinic. Thinking he did a solid job, he called Zissi over to check his work—only to have Zissi gather all the other students around and ask, “Does anyone think Bob is anywhere near where he needs to be yet?”

“That was him being a tough teacher,” said Amato, “but it was because he truly cared, and it was very motivating.” 

Zissi had multiple ways of motivating others. After Amato completed his training, he joined the same practice Zissi worked for—at Zissi’s request—and shared an office with his former teacher. “Even then he was always supporting me and making sure I grew,” Amato said. “When my first patient sat in the chair, he walked over to me and gave me a little note. It said, ‘Take your time. Do your best.’ He always knew exactly what kind of motivation to give you when.”

That was true in Smith’s experience, too. “He would be hard on me when he knew I needed that and give me a boost when I felt down or unsure. No matter what, he never let me feel bad for myself, constantly reminding me that I had to earn everything. He was such a positive presence, even when he was being tough.”

A Tireless Supporter

His positivity and enthusiasm extended beyond teaching: Zissi was a great champion of the Tufts men’s lacrosse team. 

Casey D’Annolfo, A06, the Mike Daly Head Coach of Tufts men’s lacrosse, explained it this way: “He was essentially a member of the team. He was always in the office. He was always on the sideline. He rode the bus with us to all the away games. Any time the team scored a goal, you knew you’d hear him shouting, ‘Attababy!’ We referred to him not only as the team’s unofficial dentist but also as its spiritual guide. You just knew you could count on him to have everyone’s best interest in mind.”

Zissi played lacrosse during his own undergraduate days at the University of New Hampshire, but it was when his son Jonathan, A02, began playing for the Jumbos that he started supporting the Tufts’ team. He never stopped.

“Every year we would have what he called the Senior Dinner and what we called the Doc Z dinner,” D’Annolfo said. “He’d take all of the seniors and coaches out to an old-school Italian restaurant, and we’d kick off the season just telling stories for two hours. He always said it was his favorite night of the year.” 

In a sign of the impact he had on men’s lacrosse, more than 100 Tufts lacrosse alumni attended Zissi’s funeral in early January, D’Annolfo said. “It ranged from current players, in their 20s, to players in their mid-40s who had graduated with his son. And it wasn’t just lacrosse players—there were all kinds of people there whose lives he touched. So many people flew from all over the country to pay their respects to Doc Z because of the positive impact he had on everyone.”