Thursday, March 7, 2013

Robert Zieger, 1938-2013

Paul Ortiz

Robert H. Zieger, distinguished professor of history emeritus at the University of Florida, passed away on March 6, 2013.

Professor Zieger was one of the preeminent labor historians of the United States. He was a two-time recipient of the Philip Taft Labor History Book Award for the best book in labor history. He was a prolific writer and authored classic works including, For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America since 1865 (University Press of Kentucky, 2007),  The CIO, 1935-1955 (University of North Carolina Press, 1995), and America's Great War: World War I and the American Experience (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).

In addition Bob was a spirited and rigorous historian who introduced countless scholars, students, union members, and community organizers to the field of labor history. He edited several key volumes in southern labor history including Life and Labor in the New New South (University Press of Florida, 2012) which presented some of the best new work in the field of southern labor studies.  Bob also penned essays on baseball for Harper's magazine, on labor race, and gender for Reviews in American History, and on the lessons of the past for Historically Speaking.

Zieger began teaching at the college level at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1964. He completed his doctorate in history from the University of Maryland in 1965.  He moved to Kansas State University in 1973. Subsequently, he served as a professor of history at Wayne State University, and his labor history courses were immensely popular with union members in Detroit. Dr. Zieger moved to the University of Florida in 1986, and in 1998 he received the appointment of Distinguished Professor of History. Bob was a beloved teacher at the UF and his favorite courses were the History of American Labor and The United States, 1914-1945. Scores of Bob's students went on to become union organizers and leaders in the labor movement.

Bob talked the talk, and he walked the walk. He was a longtime member and leader of the United Faculty of Florida, AFL-CIO. He was his union's delegate to the North Central Florida Central Labor Council for many years, and he gave the keynote address at the CLC's Annual Dinner in 2012. On the job, Dr. Zieger conducted scores of office visits beginning in the 1990s to encourage fellow faculty and instructors to join the United Faculty of Florida. His energy and knowledge of labor history was an important element in a highly successful union drive on campus recently.

Bob Zieger was born in 1938 in Englewood, New Jersey into a union family. He is survived by his wife, Gay Pitman, a retired college instructor, his son Robert, and his granddaughter Persephone. He enjoyed taking long walks, playing with Persephone, and promoting Gay's 2nd career as an artist. Bob will be sorely missed by his colleagues in the history profession, his comrades in the labor movement, and by the countless students that he mentored over an exceptional career of teaching, research, and service.

Paul Ortiz is associate professor of history at the University of Florida and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. His book Emancipation
Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920 (University of California Press, 2006) received the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Book Prize from the Florida Historical Society and the Florida Institute of Technology. He also co-edited and conducted oral history interviews for the award-winning, Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Jim Crow South (New Press, 2008).


Randall said...

Bob was a true mensch. When I first came to grad school at UF in 1998, I did research for his book on WWI. From that point on Bob was a wonderful mentor and friend. This is a great loss.

hcr said...

I am so sorry to hear of Bob's death. He was, indeed, a great historian, and one hell of a nice man. Thanks for this tribute to him.

Bland Whitley said...

Among my many regrets is not working with him as much as I might have at UF. All I can say is that my relatively small exposure to his work and mind vastly improved my approach to history, and his basic decency could serve us all as a model. What a great guy.

Randall said...

From the Gainesville Sun:

Nicole Honour said...

I graduated with a BA in history in 1991 and have been a public school teacher since 1994. Bob kept his door open to me over the years, offering me advice, suggesting resources and even helping out at my school. I wrote him and asked if he'd like to be a judge at a History Fair I was putting together my first year as being Department head at our school. He said it sounded exciting. To my surprise, he arrived with a delegation of US professors to judge the exhibits. My kids commented that he talked to them as if they were true historians, and he was impressed with what I had taught my students about research. Last time we exchanged e-mail I was asking for help finding a certain primary source document on the Lowell Mills and I found out he was involved in the Teaching American History project - I shared my latest lessons and he asked my advice on he outline for a lecture he was to give to high school teachers in Colorado that summer. I was not a former student but a colleague, always a colleague. In closing, I called myself a working class Zieger disciple in our last email and he wrote back to joke that he needed only 11 more. I know he had long since reached his tweleve. I will miss him.

Randall said...

Nicole: Thanks for sharing that about Bob. What a wonderful tribute to the kind of person and historian he was!

Unknown said...

I believe that I was Bob's first history Ph.D. (at least the first to finish my dissertation) when I graduated from Wayne State University in 1984. In the 33 years that I have known Bob, he has always been my teacher and mentor and colleague, but from time to time also a father-figure, older brother, role model, and friend. He taught me how to be a historian, how to write, how to be a critical thinker but more importantly, how to be committed to a more just society and be always a decent human being, not by telling but by example. We had just been corresponding a week or so ago about the Fourth Edition of American Workers, American Unions, so in truth I am still stunned by his sudden loss. I don't know what I will miss most as I think about the many years and the many events in which he touched my life, but perhaps it will be his wry, impish sense of humor. Farewell and Godspeed, my friend.

Kevin Boyle said...

Though I'm sure he didn't remember it, I met Bob when I was an undergraduate at the University of Detroit, thinking about going to grad school to study labor history. He sat me down in his office at Wayne State, talked about the field, the discipline, the grad school experience, treating me like the professional I most certainly was not. It was a characteristic I'd see in him time and again over the years. I admired his work, of course; he was a wonderful historian. But it was his manner that I admired most.

Robert Zieger and Shiera Eňano said...

I (his son, Robert) am so happy that I stumbled onto this page and had a chance to read your comments. As a high school history teacher myself, I can attest to how formative he's been in my development as a teacher, (even beyond the genetics and osmotic learnin' I took from him).

I think the testimonials that have meant the most to Gay and I have been the many that have honored his commitment to treating people as people and eschewing status, prestige, or wealth when considering the value of another. Somewhat fairly, he had a rep for being a little cranky and blunt at times. But the underlying warmth and decency was far more pronounced.

Just so y'all know--he was every bit as good a father as he was a friend, teacher, and comrade.