Known for his infectious laughter and sense of humor, Phillip Zukowski ’23, a Cornell sophomore who easily made people feel included and welcome, died on Saturday. He was 19.
Zukowski died after a fall through a six-foot gap in the Ithaca Falls Natural Area, according to his family; the Ithaca Police Department has not released findings regarding the investigation. In the days following his passing, communities across Cornell, Grinnell College and New York City have mourned the loss of the selfless and kind friend.
In the fall, Zukowski transferred to Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences from Grinnell. At Cornell, he found a community in his West Campus residence hall and in his fraternity, typical of his easy-going and friendly nature, according to his friends and family.
“He could go up to strangers and talk to them as if they were lifelong friends,” said Bibi Singh, who was close to Zukowski. “He got along with almost everybody in high school and he would play basketball with anybody that wanted to.”
Sherrie Tan ’22, a close friend who attended Queens High School for the Sciences in New York City with Zukowski, helped him adjust to Cornell. She said Zukowski cared deeply about the emotional wellbeing of those around him, remembering one of their first dinners together at Carl Becker House on West Campus, where he lived.
Another high school friend, Manjot Gill, wrote in Zukowski’s online tribute that just one day was enough for them to become friends.
“The conversation was supposed to be about him, because he was the one who had just transferred [to Cornell],” Tan said. “But when I told him that I haven’t been feeling too great because I went through a breakup, he pivoted the whole conversation back to me.”
This characteristic of Zukowski was present through his relationships. Singh described him as someone who would never leave her side, the person who stayed on the phone with her all day and texted reminders that things will be alright.
This unwavering care for others also extended to the decisions Zukowski made about his future. According to his brother Matt Zukowski, he explored different career choices throughout his childhood.
While he initially wanted to be a veterinarian, Zukowski found sick animals made him too sad to continue on that career path. For most of high school, Zukowski thought about becoming a social worker, before switching to computer and information sciences by the time he applied to college, following the footsteps of his brother.
Zukowski and Singh were planning to use Zukowski’s computer science skills to create an app that would direct mental health resources to people that needed them.
“He knew he can have such an impact on the lives of other people. He is definitely the most caring and gentle person you’ll ever meet. He’s like a gentle giant,” Singh said, referencing how he, at 6 foot 2 inches, stood a foot taller than her.
“You will look at him and he might be a little bit terrified. But the second he smiles and the second you see like his blue eyes twinkle and you will literally fall in love,” Singh remembered.
Singh also called him a quick learner, someone who could pick things up easily — but who maintained humility through his successes.
“Even if Phillip was really good at something, he would help the people around him with just genuine empathy and kindness,” said Tess Kichuk, his brother’s girlfriend.
Kichuk further spoke about Zukowski’s ingenuity, calling back to when Zukowski, at the age of 12, told her that he was writing a book.
“What 12 year old do I know who’s actually writing a book?” Kichuk said. “That really shows what a creative and interesting person Philip was to talk to — he just had a whole world in his brain, that if you chatted with him you got glimpses of.”
Zukowski carried his passion for helping others and his wit to Cornell, even as he transitioned to campus during an online semester. According to Singh, Zukowski was struggling to adjust to a new University through online clubs and classes as a sophomore transfer student.
But as Zukowski joined the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity, he found fast friends and offered comfort to brothers who had arrived at a new campus in that same pandemic isolation.
William Bodenman ’23, a Phi Kappa Tau fraternity brother and a Sun assistant sports editor, said Zukowski cared deeply about his brothers and gave him comfort as a fellow transfer student: “He made me feel a lot less alone and was instantly there whenever I needed him,” he wrote to The Sun.
“He truly exemplified the spirit of brotherhood and connection, always taking the time to make sure everyone was included and having fun,” Bodenman continued. “He was everything you could want in a friend, and I am forever proud and honored to call him my brother.”
Bodenman spoke about how Zukowski made every effort to help other brothers feel cared for and looked after, from cooking for the brothers to making sure they got home safely from the fraternity house.
“Late at night, he’d spend hours in the kitchen making quesadillas for anyone and everyone that wanted one,” Bodenman wrote. “Phillip cared deeply about each and every one of us, evident in the unique compassion and selflessness that defined him.”
Luke Pichini ’22, a brother and Sun sports editor, called him a “beacon of light”; Dominic Olah ’23, another brother, said Zukowski made him feel comfortable and open.
“When it came to Phillip, his warm and caring nature allowed me to instantly relax and feel so secure that I was able to easily open up to him,” said Olah, who pledged with Zukowski. “Being able to confide in him was so comforting and made me feel like he helped to lift the weight of the world off my shoulders, and I don’t think there are many people out there besides Phillip with a superpower like that.”
Prof. Neema Kudva, city and regional planning, the house professor-dean at Becker, wrote to The Sun that in the spring, Zukowski had continued connecting with his floormates and was excited about his time at Cornell. In a conversation with his graduate resident fellow, Kudva wrote, Zukowski talked about how happy he was to have gone home for spring break and to declare his major.
A lover of puns and with an infectious laugh, Zukowski knew how to bring joy to others — from Iowa to New York. His friends at Grinnell College specifically remember his sense of humor and friendliness.
“When I picture him in my mind, he is always smiling, always laughing,” Julia Tlapa, a friend from Grinnell, wrote on his memorial. “He was so funny, too — even if Phillip was making fun of you, you could tell by his eyes that he was laughing with you, and never at you.”
Eric Sauer, another Grinnell friend, described Phillip’s selflessness, remembering a trip with Zukowski to the opera. Zukowski was skeptical of the experience, Sauer wrote, but he gave it a chance because it was one of Sauer’s favorite things.
Apart from his friends, Zukowski was close with his family, many of whom lived in Poland. But he was especially close with his brother even despite their nine-year age gap — bonding over the video game League of Legends, with Cloud9 being Zukowski’s favorite team. (Zukowski was best at Diana.) Playing four or five nights a week for several hours at a time, the brothers got to bond over voice chat and the many “‘best brother’ mugs” Zukowski bought him.
Zukowski also adored his brother’s dog, Remus, wanting to decorate his dorm room with his favorite pictures of Remus. While the photos never made it on the wall, Matt created the collage to remember his brother.
According to Singh, Zukowski was not afraid to show his affection for his family and often put them first, even before himself.
“His mom is a teacher and sometimes she would have lesson plans. Philip would just stop whatever he was doing, and just proofread them for his mom. He even did that for her master’s thesis,” Singh said. “He was that person that you can always come to.”
Zukowski also showed up for his loved ones in small gestures — making quesadillas and walking people home. His brother recalled that one of the last things Zukowski said to him was out of concern for strange side-effects his brother was experiencing from the COVID vaccine.
“He texted me and he was like, ‘Hey, please let me know how your test results come back. Let me know you are OK,” his brother said. “I never once heard him complain … He would make sure others were helped first.”
In lieu of flowers, family and loved ones ask for people to bring a stuffed animal, something Zukowski loved, to his funeral or donate to the Teddy Bear Brigade.
Students in need of professional mental health support can call Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at 607-255-5155 and employees can call the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all CAPS and FSAP services are currently being delivered via telehealth. Whenever these services are closed, calls are answered by Cornell Health’s on-call mental health provider. The Ithaca-based Crisisline is also available at 607-272-1616. A wide range of supportive resources is also available at caringcommunity.cornell.edu.