Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Longtime journalism professor Howard Ziff dies at 81

By William Perkins

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Courtesy Norman Sims

Courtesy Norman Sims

Howard Ziff, the founder of the University of Massachusetts’ journalism program whose lessons in reporting, writing, literature and philosophy touched the lives of legions of his pupils, died early yesterday at the Fisher Home on North Pleasant Street in Amherst. He was 81.

His death – of an illness not disclosed – was confirmed by his son Max in a statement released yesterday morning.

For years, Ziff was a staple in the small program that he founded on the UMass campus in 1971.

A sturdy and burly bespectacled man with a shaggy beard, he was well known for his legendary storytelling. Many times in his classes, he would call upon his observations and experiences as a reporter and editor in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s.

“He was a great storyteller, which made him a great a teacher,” said Norman Sims, a professor in the Commonwealth Honors College who taught in the journalism program from 1979 to 2011. “He really did care about people.”

But it was Ziff’s hefty intellect of all things journalism, literature and society – and his deep passion for seeing his students succeed – that could be counted among his most cherished traits.

“Howard was the last of the intellectual proletariats,” recalled Bill Parent, a student of Ziff’s, who graduated in 1977. “He was a newspaperman and a scholar of Orwell and Dickens.”

“Howard was an extremely rare combination of qualities, both streetwise and an intellectual,” added Ralph Whitehead, a professor of journalism at UMass since 1973 who first met Ziff when he was working in Chicago. “That isn’t an impossible combination but it doesn’t occur often. He was deeply steeped in the knowledge of the way things actually work in society, particularly in big cities, but he also read deeply and loved literature.”

A consummate newspaperman

Ziff was a newspaperman by trade. He’d worked as a reporter and as the Korean bureau chief for Pacific Stars and Stripes shortly in 1954 – two years after he graduated from Amherst College with a degree in philosophy.

He then moved to Chicago, where in 1956 he was hired as a reporter and later assistant city editor at the City News Bureau of Chicago.

He was later hired in 1958 by the Chicago Daily News, a publication that he worked at in various capacities for 10 years.

Ziff was working as the night city editor there in 1968 when he found out that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed.

“He turned to one of his reporters, and said, ‘Find Rosa Parks,’” said Whitehead. “They found her. She had been living quietly in Detroit.”

It was at the Daily News where Ziff learned many of the tools of the trade.

It was also there where he worked alongside many of the area’s finest journalists – among them, the late legendary city columnist Mike Royko, whom he had supervised.

“Royko was a crusty guy,” noted Whitehead. “He didn’t always speak well of everybody, but he always had the highest praise for Howard.”

In late 1968, Ziff left the Daily News and took a job as an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Illinois-Urbana. He held the post for three years.

But in 1971, Ziff – a Holyoke native – headed back east for a job in his native Pioneer Valley.

A pioneer at UMass

Upon returning closer to home, Ziff landed a job at UMass to start up an independent journalism program at the school.

“[He was the] driving force behind the creation of the journalism department,” recalled Sims, who had also been a student of Ziff’s at the University of Illinois. The program soon grew slightly in size – though it still remains one of the smallest on campus.

And from its inception until his retirement from full-time teaching in 1998, Ziff taught numerous courses within the program – including basic newswriting, editorial writing and literary journalism classes.

To some students, Whitehead noted, Ziff could come off as a bit intimidating at first. That feeling, however, usually dissipated quickly.

“He was a warm-hearted, generous person,” Whitehead said. “Each student discovered they didn’t need to be intimidated by him at all.”

In the classroom, Ziff brought his old-school newspaper practices and techniques – and he pushed his students to always turn in clean and factually accurate reports.

“He was a traditional newsroom editor transposed into the classroom, highly demanding of the fundamentals, cleanness of copy and finding that news angle,” noted Nicholas McBride, an associate professor of journalism. “He was a taskmaster on fundamentals.”

But Ziff was never one to confine his lessons to just the classroom.

Oftentimes, he’d invite students to his Amherst home, where he would host a party or serve up lunch or dinner. There, he would expand upon some of his lessons and also engage with them on a one-on-one basis. Many times, he’d also expound upon some of his other passions – among them, literature, and two of his favorite authors, George Orwell and Charles Dickens.

“This is a man who introduced and immersed me in Dickens, Orwell and martinis,” said Parent, who served as the editor-in-chief of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian in 1975. “And you take that with you for life.”

‘A gift that kept on giving’

For Pedro Pereira, who earned his degree from UMass in 1989, Ziff was the reason why he graduated on time.

Pereira – who was the editor-in-chief of the Collegian in 1988 – had been short of a few of the necessary credits to graduate. So he went to Ziff with a plan to attain them.

But Ziff already had a plan of his own for Pereira.

“Howard stopped me short into my second sentence. ‘How many credits do you need?’ I told him three, maybe it was four,” Pereira said in an email to the Collegian last night. “He said, ‘OK, write me a report about your tenure as editor in chief of the Collegian and how you solved the toughest problem that you had to deal with.’ And so I did.”

And Pereira got the credits that he needed in order to graduate in four years.

“I loved the man,” Pereira added. “He had such a huge impact on me that no words of gratitude could ever do justice to the magnitude of his influence on me and my career.”

For Heidi Berenson, a 1979 graduate of the program, Ziff was instrumental in helping her choose her career path.

Berenson was a student in one of Ziff’s newswriting courses. And one day in class, Ziff approached Berenson – who was a features editor at the Collegian – and offered some advice as to what journalistic path she should choose once she graduated.

“He basically said, ‘I think you have the personality for television,’” Berenson recalled in a phone interview last night.

So she followed that path – and has since won two national Emmy awards and worked as a producer for ABC News, CBS News and CNN.

“[Ziff] was a mentor for life,” Berenson said.

“When you talk about UMass as the gift that keeps on giving, Howard was a gift that kept on giving,” she added.

Local roots

Ziff – who was born on Dec. 30, 1930, in Holyoke – is survived by his wife Jane, his daughter Ellen and his son Max.

A kaddish ceremony will take place later this week, and another ceremony honoring him is scheduled to take place this summer, according to the statement released by his son.

A Facebook page, called “Friends of Howard Ziff” – which contains tributes from former students, friends and colleagues – has also been created in his honor.

Katie Landeck and Herb Scribner contributed to this report.

William Perkins can be reached at [email protected]

3 Comments

3 Responses to “Longtime journalism professor Howard Ziff dies at 81”

  1. Ed Smith on April 12th, 2012 1:47 pm

    I attended UMass starting in 1971 and was in the first group of students to work with Howard and Larry Pinkham. They were both wonderful people to have as mentors and, even after 36 years as journalist, I still think of Howard as the prototypical city editor. But my favorite story was how Howard got the facts wrong but still helped me get my first newspaper job.

    When I applied for my first reporting job at a small paper in Connecticut in 1975, I listed Howard as a reference. The city editor knew Howard and so she called him to ask about me. Great guy, Howard said. Older and a Vietnam vet, he added. You should hire him.

    Of course, Howard was wrong on all counts. I was not a vet and I was 22. Nonetheless, his recommendation got me through the door and I got the job. It was a funny moment, but it always stuck with me that Howard always stood behind his students and would do anything to help them get into the business.

  2. Ken Lundberg on May 3rd, 2012 5:47 pm

    Hey nice piece. I have this great memory of standing next to Ziff at the urinals in a men’s room on the fourth floor of Bartlett Hall after our Orwell class. He turned to me in that deep pipe-smoke voice of his and said, “This really is the best part of class, don’t you think?”

  3. Dave Rousseau on July 24th, 2016 9:42 pm

    I was a student of Howard’s from 1980-81 but was unable to finish my bachelor’s degree due to personal considerations. I remember Howard as being a no nonsense and eccentric fella. I can still see him riding across campus on his bike sporting his customary pipe, tweed jacket and smiling broadly. During the Reagan elections Howard use to be amazed at how good a grip I had on national and world affairs and encouraged me to go that route. Once again life’s journey saw fit to take me in a different direction. I’ve thought about him as a man of distinction and culture. I’ve often wished I’d have revisited those days and finished up journalism under him. He was a great man who touched my life more than I can elaborate.

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