Chicago’s “Dean of Love” shoots Cupid’s arrows in the Big Apple

By Maroon Staff

To prospective University of Chicago undergraduates, Dean Ted O’Neill may be the embodiment of the foreboding stone dragon perched on Hull Gate. Students in the College see him as the hunky, personable face of the administration. But as it turns out, these dreamy students may have been right in associating O’Neill with romance. O’Neill was one of the principal actors in the highly original wedding of a pair of newlyweds.

According to The New York Times, Vanessa Livingston Filley and Zachary Charles Zises were married in Central Park on February 27. The bitterly cold day was the last of the Christos’s “Gates” exhibition. O’Neill, a longtime friend of Zises, led the ceremony, with the official help of Rose Valentin, a community associate from the City Clerk’s office. Like much of the couple’s romance (they purchased a house in Atlanta after having spent only 17 days together in the city), the wedding was decidedly unconventional; the bride wore a gown constructed from antique kimonos, and they exchanged rings with the word herzschmerz, German for heartache, emblazoned on the inside. They interpret that severe, even gloomy word as an expression of their profound love.

O’Neill met his friend through Zises’s brother, Brian, a former head of Doc films. Briefly he and his Akita lived with Brian, Marc Evans—another former director of Doc and former assistant director of admissions—as well as others. When Zachary graduated from University of California in Berkeley, he came to Chicago to look for a job. According to O’Neill, there was talk of his joining the admissions staff, but he instead became a commodities trader. However, that career path did not suit him. He retired from trading to pursue filmmaking, and has written and directed two feature-length films shot in Chicago by a production company that he and his brother head. Of Zises, O’Neill wrote, “He is a strong, brilliant, ornery guy. We always argue about the need for narrative—I need it, he would rather dispense with it.” Their intellectual dialectic may have been, O’Neill speculates, one of the reasons why Zises asked him to serve at his wedding.

Although O’Neill was not well acquainted with the bride before the wedding, having only met her once at a screening of Zises’s second film, he was “flattered” at being asked to officiate. A few weeks before the wedding, the couple met with O’Neill, their adviser of romance, to discuss their vision of a quirky, romantic wedding. The bridal party entered the Park from the east side and the groom’s from the west, joining in a tunnel near the boat pond. It was under that candle-lined tunnel that the ceremony was conducted. Music was provided by a cellist and by chanting from the bridal party. O’Neill read the scene from The Brothers Karamazov in which Alyosha hears the reading in the Gospel about the wedding feast in Canaa. He also read Rilke’s Ninth Duino Elegy. The bride and groom read letters to one another, and Filley read one of her own poems. O’Neill said that the two spent “a long time before the wedding fasting and meditating.” Because it was the last day of the “Gates,” the ceremony attracted a lot of attention.

The eccentric New York ceremony seems a fitting choice for a couple that met at a Chicago yoga workshop, which was interrupted by the terrorist attacks of September 11. The event compelled Filley to give a reading of her poetry at the Green Mill Lounge. Zises did not initially care for her work, but soon found himself mired in political debates with his future bride.

Lee Behnke, director of the Undergraduate Latin Program, said, “Knowing Ted, it was just his sort of occasion and people. That it was freezing, in a park, and under a fabulous art installation fits Ted too. He knows interesting people.” She could not resist pointing out that the appeal that O’Neill held for this unusual couple has also served him well in his position as dean of Undergraduate Admissions. She said, “His appreciation for the coupling of intelligence and eccentricity has made him a fitting spokesman for the University of Chicago in attracting students.”