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Words of Farewell for Howard Zinn

Tributes include funding a new graduate fellowship


Howard Zinn in 1987, the year before he retired from BU: “a gentle soul possessed of genuine interest in other people.” Photo by BU Photography

Howard Zinn waded in words, more so than the typical scholar: words of those often ignored, who he channeled in his epic 1980 A People’s History of the United States, words of protest he hurled at perceived injustice, and waves of words rolling back at him from admirers and critics.

So while BU is erecting a conventional academic monument — a memorial scholarship — to the historian and activist, who died on January 27 at age 87, it also plans several tributes in words, spoken and written.

David Mayers, a professor of political science in the College of Arts & Sciences, read a memorial statement at a CAS faculty meeting on February 17.

“Even many critics at this university, and elsewhere, who were not drawn to his activism or ideas, felt obliged to take him seriously as a decent man,” Mayers said. Noting Zinn’s public role as political activist and teacher, he praised the private man, “a gentle soul possessed of genuine interest in other people. These were lovely qualities not necessarily understood by people who saw him from a distance or thought of him only as a man of causes.”

Mayers arrived at BU in 1989, the year after Zinn retired from the University, where he had taught since 1964. But “he was a constant presence after his retirement,” Mayers recalls, keeping an office as a professor emeritus and speaking at various department events.

More memorials are on the way. A committee of political science professors and graduate students is working to organize a commemoration of Zinn, probably in late March, according to Mayers. The details are “still to be nailed down,” but he expects people to “reminisce about Howard and his scholarship.”

Longer term, the department is looking into compiling a Festschrift, a volume of essays about Zinn and the subjects that interested him written by contributing scholars. “That’s a much slower, a more long-term project,” says Mayers, “because you have to line up the people who’d write the articles and find a publisher.”

Other expressions of respect can manifest faster than Festschrifts; the Office of Development & Alumni Relations (DAR) is seeking donations to launch the Howard Zinn Graduate Fund for Studies of Democracy. The fund will support Ph.D. students in political science “working on any aspect of democracy, democratic politics, democratization, or threats to democracy,” says Karen Weiss Jones, chief advancement officer at DAR.

The fund likely won’t be available for at least a year. Jones says they hope to attract at least $100,000 to create a graduate fellowship endowment.

“His death was so unexpected. I think Virginia Sapiro, dean of Arts & Sciences, and the political science faculty decided this was a very appropriate way to memorialize him as a former faculty member,” she says.

Another legacy, endowed with a gift from Alex MacDonald (CAS’72), who studied under Zinn, and his wife, Maureen A. Strafford (MED’76), the annual Howard Zinn Lecture Series, continues each fall. At last year’s lecture, three months before his death, Zinn sat on a panel appraising the Obama presidency.

Zinn became a folk hero to the political left and a boogeyman to the right for his public activism on behalf of civil rights and women’s rights and his antiwar stances, from Vietnam to Iraq. That controversy was only part of what Mayers, in his comments to the faculty, referred to as Zinn’s “complete life. Boston University and this tired old world are better thanks to the vividness of his example and the durability of his teachings.”

To contribute to the Howard Zinn Graduate Fund for Studies of Democracy, visit www.bu.edu/makeagift <http://www.bu.edu/makeagift> . Simply enter "Howard Zinn Graduate Fund" in the box designated for "Comments/Questions". Do not make a selection from the drop-down menu in the section titled "Your Gift Designation." For further information, contact Karen Weiss Jones at 617-358-1214 karenwj@bu.edu

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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