HYDE PARK — Loved ones and fellow University of Chicago scholars memorialized Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng on campus Thursday, celebrating his innovative, giving spirit while mourning his violent death last week.
The 24-year-old was killed during a robbery Nov. 9 in Hyde Park. He was honored Thursday afternoon with a public memorial at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave.
A native of China’s Sichuan province, Zheng loved to travel, cook, and play squash and table tennis, according to his obituary. He also played piano and admired the beauty of photography and Chinese calligraphy, his friends told the university.
Zheng came to Chicago in fall 2019 from the University of Hong Kong, and graduated from UChicago in June with his master’s degree in statistics.
An active learner, he aspired to become a data scientist to solve society’s problems, statistics department chair Dan Nicolae said.
Nicolae collaborated with Zheng on the latter’s research thesis, which concerned machine learning methods for gene regulatory networks.
Zheng “politely listened” to Nicolae’s ideas and suggestions as he began work on his thesis, only to return weeks later having tackled subject matter that was “more challenging and better suited to his research interests,” Nicolae said.
“This spirit of inquiry, creativity [and] independence showed me his great promise for scholarly work,” Nicolae said. “I was convinced he would be successful in anything he decided to pursue.”
While at the university, Zheng also worked as a teaching assistant in an advanced statistics course offered through the school of public policy. Students praised Zheng for being “the most responsible” teaching assistant who would take on extra duties to help others.
In one case, he met individually with a person studying virtually in India, changing his own schedule so the student wouldn’t have to adjust to that vast time difference, public policy professor Bruce Meyer said.
Zheng was directly credited for inspiring two students to become teaching assistants in the same class this year, Meyer said.
“The life of Dennis Zheng shows us that even a young person can have a lot of impact on others,” Meyer said. “He certainly did.”
Zheng’s mother, Rong Li — who gave a ten-minute speech in her native language honoring her son — and his father, Xiaodong Zheng, traveled to Chicago from China for the ceremony.
Zheng’s girlfriend Shirley Cai, a graduate student in political science, helped plan the memorial service, university president Paul Alivisatos said.
“Dennis was a member of our family, and by extension that means you are a member of our family, too,” Alivisatos said to Zheng’s parents. “… Dennis will always be remembered here as a wonderful, talented and caring person who touched so many peoples lives and helped make them better.”
Zhichun Bian, deputy consul general of the People’s Republic of China in Chicago, said officials were “shocked and pained by his loss,” and praised the university for its response, including bringing Zheng’s family to the U.S.
The Chinese government “attaches great importance to the safety and lawful rights” of its citizens living overseas, she said. Officials “immediately demanded” U.S. authorities investigate Zheng’s murder and take “concrete measures” to ensure the safety of all Chinese nationals, she said.
In response to Zheng’s murder, which occurred as part of a violent day in Hyde Park, city and university leaders announced more police officers, traffic enforcement and surveillance cameras will come to UChicago’s campus and to the surrounding area.
Officials have repeatedly said their public safety efforts will include strategies other than additional policing. Few details on those plans, aside from expanding students’ access to transportation and promising collaboration with neighboring residents, have been announced to date.
“We are committed to the safety of our students and to all members of our campus community, and we’ll do everything we can to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again,” university provost Ka Yee Lee said.
Alton Spann, 18, was arrested and charged with murder in Zheng’s killing and is being held without bail.
Spann allegedly walked up to Zheng with a gun and ordered Zheng to hand over his belongings. Zheng tried to run, and Spann fired one shot, hitting him in his chest, prosecutors said.
Spann allegedly fled in a stolen Ford Mustang after the killing, and later pawned Zheng’s laptop and iPhone for $100, prosecutors and Chicago police said.
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