Labor expert and historian Robert Zieger dies


Published: Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 6:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 6:22 p.m.

Robert Zieger used to say that every day spent indoors under fluorescent lights takes a day off your life.

Instead, the longtime history professor took the time to go for long walks and encouraged others to do the same. He sometimes held class outside when he couldn't resist a beautiful day.

Friends and colleagues remember this attitude fondly after Zieger's unexpected passing Wednesday from a heart attack at 74, leaving behind a legacy as a widely respected historian and distinguished professor at the University of Florida.

Zieger's reputation as an expert on the history of labor in the U.S. looms large. Twice he received the Philip Taft Labor History Book Award, the top prize for the best book on labor history. He edited several volumes on the subject and taught at several universities before settling in Gainesville to teach at UF in 1986. In 1998, he was appointed distinguished professor of history.

Despite his stature, friends say he never let his fame get to him.

Paul Ortiz, associate professor in history and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at UF, remembers his shock when he, as a graduate, received a compliment from Zieger on a paper he'd written when they met at an event at Duke University in the 1990s.

“That was just the kind of person he was,” Ortiz said. “He didn't care if you were the top person in his field or if you were just an undergraduate.”

Alan Bliss, visiting assistant professor of history at the University of North Florida, was the last Ph.D. student Zieger supervised before his retirement in 2008.

Bliss said Zieger had a passion not only for labor history but also for American politics, economics and civil rights.

“He had a powerful instinct of justice for everyone,” Bliss said.

Friends and colleagues will tell you that as much as Zieger approached his work with a fervent professionalism, he never took himself too seriously.

Zieger was a leader in the United Faculty of Florida and played a key role in growing membership in the past few years.

Oritz said he looked up to Zieger as a teacher. Taking mental notes as he watched Zieger instruct students, Ortiz said Zieger never played the role of the grumpy old history professor.

“He never pulled rank on people,” he said. “He used his senior position to help students.”

Zieger is survived by his wife, Gay Pitman; his son, Robert; and his infant granddaughter Persephone, who friends say brought much joy to his life in his last year.

Contact Joey Flechas at 338-3166 or joey.flechas@gvillesun.com.

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