Gillian Trimboli-Zettler was younger than the teenagers at Columbine High School when it became the backdrop for a massacre, but she still felt it was her duty to do something on behalf of the surviving students. She organized a fundraiser and gathered her classmates’ handprints as a tangible show of support.
Friends say the project was an early display of the profound compassion and highly developed organizational skills that distinguish Trimboli-Zettler, the 31-year-old incoming executive director of the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival. Trimboli-Zettler, described by those who know her as “loving” and “loyal,” is fiercely devoted to friends and family.
“I don’t think there’s anything more important to her,” says Emily Snyder, a New York City television producer who was in a Girl Scout troop with Trimboli-Zettler.
Snyder is a year younger than Trimboli-Zettler, an age difference that is hugely significant when it represents 10 percent of one’s lifespan. Yet Snyder says Trimboli-Zettler ignored grade-school social conventions in order to make Snyder feel cared for.
“Being an incredible big sister, she just took me under her wing and befriended me,” Snyder says.
Trimboli-Zettler is the oldest of four children. She was born on Long Island, but her father, the youngest of eight, whisked his Italian-American family north to Vermont the moment her mother agreed to it. Trimboli-Zettler would now like to coax both of them closer to Mount Pleasant, where she’s house-hunting.
“I feel like if we can pull all of the siblings south of the Mason-Dixon, we’ll convince them,” Trimboli-Zettler says.
It took a relative to draw Trimboli-Zettler to South Carolina. Her cousin, Kristin Ashcraft, crowed about the region after enrolling at Duke University. After touring Southern campuses, Trimboli-Zettler settled on Clemson University.
She had considered studying visual arts at Savannah College of Art and Design but ultimately decided she preferred a liberal arts curriculum. “I work in a creative field and I still don’t have as much creativity as she does,” Snyder says.
During her sophomore year, Trimboli-Zettler gave birth to her son, Ethan. “I had him on my Christmas break,” she says, confirming her reputation for efficiency. Although she initially hesitated to return to school, Trimboli-Zettler’s mother urged her to continue with her education before her college ties frayed.
“She said, ‘If you take time off, it’s going to be easy to be a stay-at-home mom,’ ” recalls Trimboli-Zettler, who didn’t remain in a relationship with the child’s father, although she describes him as “100 percent, an awesome dad.” She moved back to her off-campus apartment, relying on the services of a nanny recommended by a child psychology professor.
“I don’t think she was expecting it, but I don’t think she’d ever have her life any other way,” Snyder says.
Jennifer Hladek remembers Trimboli-Zettler’s baby as a welcome presence at rehearsals of Take Note, their female a capella group.
“I think everyone just embraced Ethan,” says Hladek, now a paralegal living on the Isle of Palms. “He would come and listen to us and have fun dancing.”
Just as Trimboli-Zettler’s son grew up at Clemson, her next child may forge memories of growing up around the Charleston Wine + Food Festival. Trimboli-Zettler is expecting a baby in the spring. She declined to reveal her due date.
During college, Trimboli-Zettler balanced the demands of motherhood and running Take Note.
Local restaurateur Dick Elliott, a member of the search committee that chose Trimboli-Zettler for the job, was especially impressed by her work with the group.
“I can’t imagine managing 16 women,” he says with a laugh, adding that 16 college men would probably pose an equal challenge. “The temperament that takes, and the skill of reading people and responding to them ... well, I think she has that in great measure. It’s interesting to me that her degree is in elementary education, and that she has student teaching experience. You can see that she has the patience one needs to have to do that.”
Getting jobs done
According to Hladek, Take Note members fell into the habit of bringing their personal and scholastic problems to Trimboli-Zettler, who would invariably resolve them. She demonstrated the same authority as the group’s general manager, arranging for Take Note to perform in London and record three albums.
“Gillian is one of those people who makes things happen,” Hladek says. “She took our little group that was nothing and she made that group.”
After college, a Greenville friend moving to Charleston recommended Trimboli-Zettler for her job in radio sales and promotions. “That’s where I learned to love event planning,” says Trimboli-Zettler, who was once tasked with keeping a crowd of 20,000 ticket holders outside a coliseum while Jesse McCartney completed a tardy sound check. Then tornado sirens started wailing.
“From that point on, I was never stressed,” Trimboli-Zettler says. “You deal with it.”
Universal Music Group recruited Trimboli-Zettler to promote its artists, a job she likens to pharmaceutical sales. But the time and travel involved rapidly became unpalatable, she says.
“I wanted to be around my little person,” she says. “Trick-or-treating was more important than being backstage at concerts.”
Trimboli-Zettler took a job at the new Children’s Museum of the Upstate, where she rented event space to Euphoria Greenville, an annual food and wine festival. When she learned the festival’s director was leaving, she expressed interest in the job. She was hired in 2011.
Two years later, she married Spencer Zettler, a former professional speed skater from Canada who came to town to rehab his right knee. Zettler first asked out Trimboli-Zettler when she was pouring wine for a juvenile diabetes fundraiser, but she only accepted the date after later learning he was the son of a couple she knew.
Their first dinner at Soby’s lasted five hours, but Trimboli-Zettler says home cooking was as alluring as restaurant conversation.
“One of the reasons he fell for me was tortellini and sausage,” she says. “I love cooking Italian food. I love making lasagna.”
Mostly though, Trimboli-Zettler loves the notion of home.
“I just love being a mom,” she says. “I have an amazing kid, so he makes my job easy, but friends and family are super important to me.”
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.