Mr. Zonis

November 2, 2009 -

John Heald

Today’s blog is not what I had planned to post. Instead of a fun look at my life as a Carnival Cruise Director I will be writing about a man whose heart beat the red, white and blue of Carnival Cruise Lines………….his name was Meshulam (Mike) Zonis ……………….. who passed away last night.

Who?………………….I know that’s what many…………… if not all of you are saying ………………”Mike who?……………”Never heard of him?”

So, let me tell you what I know and what I remember of this great man.

First of all, I can’t call him Mike…………nobody did…………and while Presidents and other high ranking Carnival executives were and are comfortable with shipboard and shore side employees referring to them by first name………….everyone called him “Mr. Zonis” ……….it was a mark of respect………..total and utter respect and to call him Mike would have been like calling Her Majesty the Queen “Lizzy.”

When our founder Ted Arison swung wide the door of opportunity for cruising to be a vacation for you and me and not just the rich and tanned, he knew he needed a right hand man…………someone who could control the operation? And so the first employee he ever hired was Mr. Zonis who became the Senior Vice President of Operations. Really though, he was the Senior Vice President of……well………..everything. Outside of Ted and Micky Arison and later Bob Dickinson, Mr. Zonis was the boss and when he said jump………….we all jumped ………..as high as we possibly could.

Among his contemporaries Mr.Zonis holds a unique place. Few, if any, have so lastingly and so profoundly influenced the cruise industry— not just Carnival but also beyond.

To describe Mr. Zonis is not an easy task. He was a complicated man who had an understanding of how a few words can be made to resonate and whose character had the ability to motivate, grip, frighten and amuse. And beneath that sometimes gruff pestering were a huge heart and a true and passionate love for his job and the people who worked with him.

He had the memory of an elephant…………he never ever forgot anything and that was wonderful and yet frightening.

Let me explain.

In 2006 Mr. Zonis and his wife Clara sailed with me on the Carnival Liberty in Europe. He was retired by then and I had not seen him for some years. Well, one night at the show I introduced a brilliant cello entertainer who performed as we sailed from Venice.

Mr. Zonis had many loves and one of them was music, especially jazz, big band and classical. Anyway, he loved this entertainer and after the show he told me he wanted a CD of him. Of course, this was Mr. Zonis so I said “Of course, sir” without checking to see if he had any. He didn’t. I explained to this chap that Mr. Zonis wanted one and he promised to send me a recording and I intern told Mr. Zonis……………he never sent me one. I forgot about the whole thing. Mr. Zonis, however did not and when he saw me two years later, the first thing he did after slapping me hard on the back (his trademark greeting) was to say, at the age of 80 “Where’s my damn cello music?”

There will be many tributes that will be written over the next few days, scribed by writers far more talented than I. They will tell you about the many languages he spoke and many of his other attributes. I wonder though if they will talk about his love of jokes and how humor would always pay a part in every situation. He would always tell me jokes …………………here is my favorite Mr. Zonis joke.

A couple of Irish hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?”

The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.”

There is a silence, then a shot is heard.

The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?“

Although ill health dogged his later years, the sheer scale of Mr. Zonis’ achievements remains undiminished. He was as gentle as he was fierce and his passion for Carnival Cruise Lines was legendary. Many years ago there was a problem with loading provisions and stores onto one of the Carnival ships in Miami. And so Mr. Zonis raced to the pier to sort the problem out. He drove onto the pier and parked right by the bow of the ship jumping out of the car, barking orders and taking care of business. However, his passion for getting this job done and the ship sailing onetime had outweighed his driving skills because he had left his Lincoln in drive. And so, as he stood on the pier being Mr. Zonis……………..his car…………………….slowly…………drove off the pier ………………and into the water…………….sinking to the bottom of the harbor.

Legend has it that Mr. Zonis, looked…………..watched it happen……………and as the last few bubbles broke the surface…………he turned around …………….and said to gathering crowd of workers………….”Come on, it’s only a car………..this is a cruise ship………. and people’s vacations are depending on us…….let’s get back to work”………and they did.

Today, a wife, two sons, grandchildren and family members will have hearts full of sadness and despair.

Today, the ship’s flags are flying at half mast as are the ones outside the corporate offices in Miami.

Today, many Carnival employees will be sitting quietly, reflecting on their own personal experiences and their own “Mr. Zonis” memories.

Today, many thousands of people who will be enjoying the Fun Ship experience will be doing so without a clue who Mr. Zonis was. Yet, the very foundations of their cruise were built by this man.

His legacy will never be forgotten……………as neither will the one nor only, the incomparable Mr. Zonis.

Zonis

Hi, I’m John, and this is my blog. So please don’t mistake my opinions — or those of my dear friends, fans or commenters — for those of Carnival Cruise Line or Carnival Corporation. My apologies in advance for anything I may say that upsets you, but this disclaimer covers Carnival and puts the blame directly on me………….. bugger.