Howard M. Ziff, professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a veteran Chicago newsman, died Tuesday, his son said. He was 81.
The longtime professor and veteran newsman was a beloved mentor and friend to hundreds of young journalists whom he inspired during nearly three decades of teaching. Ziff provided his students with the foundation of journalism technique and philosophy while regaling them with tales from the newsrooms and streets of Chicago during the late 1950s and 1960s.
He would intimidate many students with his gruff city editor demeanor while the impish sparkle in his eyes would betray a softer persona beneath.
Ziff’s wife, Jane, and children Donald “Max” Ziff and Ellen Ziff, were with him when he died at the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst after an extended illness, Max Ziff said.
Ziff was born in Holyoke and received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Amherst College before he was drafted during the Korean War. He began his journalism career as a reporter for Pacific Stars and Stripes.
He moved to Chicago in 1958, where he worked at the City News Bureau of Chicago, a cooperative news agency, alongside famed newsman Mike Royko. Both men left the cooperative to work at the Chicago Daily News, where Ziff eventually become city editor. In 1968, Ziff left the newsroom to teach journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He moved to Amherst in 1971 to establish the journalism program at UMass and served on its faculty until his retirement in 1998.
He was chairman of the journalism program for about 13 years.
“Howard was one of those newspapermen who in the 18th century would have been a printer, which is to say a public intellectual,” said Norman Sims, who was Ziff’s student in Illinois and his faculty colleague at UMass. “His curiosity, his ability to dig into matters — drilling down until he hit a kernel that revealed the whole story — made him both an intellectual and a news reporter.’ ‘
Ziff was well known for taking his lessons beyond the classroom, inviting groups of students to his home or meeting with them at the university pub. He would entertain them with his and journalistic exploits, peppered with challenging questions to help the budding reporters hone their skills.
He often used his contacts to help his students land jobs in the field, with many ending up in newsrooms including the Boston Herald, The Washington Post, CNN, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press.
Earlier this month, his students and colleagues started a Facebook page to share their memories of Ziff’s lessons, his guidance or just images of him bicycling around campus. Within a week, at least 280 had joined the group to share their stories and photographs.
Former student Steve Semple reminisced about Ziff teaching an introductory course to show “the newsroom is not a library — it’s a noisy, busy place with lots of distractions.”
“He gives everyone a short set of facts, and allows 10 minutes to write a brief news story,” Semple wrote. “Only this time, he fires up a very loud boom box with some up-tempo big band music. As it plays, Howard dances up and down the aisles singing, snapping his fingers and really getting into the groove. Right up into peoples’ faces. Distractions indeed.”
Another former student, Daniel Guidera, told how Ziff helped him salvage his academic record.
“In the many years since, I’ve tried to pass along some of that kindness, and when I have, there is a straight line back to Howard’s empathy. At this hour I sit with immense respect for him, and gratitude for the privilege of knowing him,” Guidera posted.
The Ziff family will host an informal kaddish and gathering at their Amherst home. A memorial get-together is being planned for this summer. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to “The Howard Ziff Lecture Series” at the Journalism Program of the University of Massachusetts.