Friends and family of Kevin Zhao gathered in Houston Hall’s Bodek Lounge on Saturday afternoon to share memories of the deceased Engineering and Wharton senior.
Zhao died peacefully in his sleep from cardiac arrest over winter break in China. He was 21 years old.
Memorial organizers had to scramble for more chairs as almost 60 people showed up to pay their respects to Zhao. In the front of the room, a large screen displayed moments from Zhao’s life, from baby pictures and prom photos to snapshots with friends during Hey Day.
Zhao’s family was present, and his father, Jay Zhao, spoke to the assembled crowd about his son. He remembered Kevin’s profound gift for mathematics, which began when Kevin received a $100 Chinese New Year’s gift in the second grade and promptly calculated the interest he could make from the sum every year. From there, Zhao was ranked number one in mathematics in the state of New York in eighth grade, placed as a regional finalist in the Siemens Competition for Math, Science and Technology in high school and was set to begin a career at Microsoft after graduation. Wharton professor Peter Fader, whose prospective student lecture inspired Zhao to attend Penn, remembered Zhao as a standout student.
“Kevin was the single best student who took my course over the last 10 years,” Fader said.
The people gathered also remembered Zhao as a loving son, brother and friend. Zhao always looked after his younger sister Kathryn, who once wished that her future boyfriend would be as good to her as Zhao was to her. Seaver Wang, a College senior, said that even when playing games together online, Zhao would be the one who would risk everything to save his team. “Without him, I think I would have gotten a lot less out of my time at Penn,” Wang said.
This kindness extended to other areas as well. “He saw the people in the numbers,” friend Paulo Bautista, a Wharton senior, said. “He wanted to use data to help people.”
Fader said that Zhao had turned down a job at Electronic Arts, a video game company, for Microsoft, where he thought he could do more for society. Zhao wanted to “use computers to understand the secrets of nature,” his father said.
Others remembered Zhao’s fun-loving side. College senior Paul Blazek said that when Zhao learned of the Supreme Court case which decided that “corporations can be people,” he wondered whether “people can be corporations” and tried to incorporate himself, jokingly attempting to sell 1,000 shares of himself at $10 a share.
Many also spoke of Zhao’s love for food. Wang said that one of his biggest regrets was not being able to “cook for Kevin [in return] for all the times he cooked for me.”
Jay Zhao said that his son had two dreams in life. One was to “make the largest mooncake in the world” and get in the Guinness Book of Records.
The other dream?
“To help people have a better life,” his father said.