Culling lessons from his own newspaper experience, Howard Ziff taught a generation of students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst the craft of journalism and, not incidentally, how to reach for lives as riveting as his celebrated classes.
“He was on stage in the classroom,’’ said Larry Carpman, a former student of Mr. Ziff’s who now runs Carpman Communications in Boston. “He had this incredible ability to teach not just the mechanics of journalism, but the benefits of having passion in life. If passion can be taught, he knew how to do it.’’
Four decades ago, Mr. Ziff returned from Illinois to his home state to build the university’s journalism program. A childhood in Holyoke, an education at Amherst College, and invaluable experience as a reporter and editor at the Chicago Daily News combined to make him the most charismatic and electric professor most students encountered.
Mr. Ziff, whose former students fill newsrooms across the country, died of heart failure Tuesday in the Hospice at Fisher House in Amherst. He was 81 and had lived in Amherst for many years.
“He was able to combine the grit and the bustle of the streets with a strong interest in literature and philosophy and history,’’ said Ralph Whitehead Jr., a longtime friend and journalism professor at UMass Amherst who invoked the name of a legendary writer for The New Yorker magazine to measure Mr. Ziff’s range.
“If I were to name a journalist whose own work captured the spirit of Howard’s teaching,’’ Whitehead said, “it would have been A.J. Liebling, someone who moved back and forth easily between the pool hall and the reading room of the library.’’
During his days at Amherst College, Mr. Ziff studied with poet Robert Frost. In Chicago, at the City News Bureau and then at the Chicago Daily News, one of Mr. Ziff’s friends and colleagues was columnist Mike Royko.
At times it was as though Mr. Ziff demanded the best of Royko and Frost from aspiring journalists, newspaper work that was at once soaring and fierce.
“Howard was part Chicago precinct captain and part Amherst College philosophy professor,’’ Norman Simms, whom Mr. Ziff hired to teach at UMass Amherst, told B.J. Roche in 1998 for a UMass Magazine profile of Mr. Ziff, occasioned by his retirement.
Mr. Ziff majored in philosophy at Amherst College, a background that could be seen in everything from his journalism ethics courses to the way he mused about the business.
Ultimately, though, words and sentences mattered most, regardless of the technology used to deliver the news.
“I don’t think that good writing will ever go away,’’ Mr. Ziff said in the UMass Magazine profile. “That’s impossible. You’ve got to think and reflect, and you don’t know what you think until you’ve written it.’’
Mr. Ziff was born in Holyoke, the youngest of three children whose father owned a curtain company. Even when he was young, Mr. Ziff’s prodigious memory drew notice.
“He had an amazing ear,’’ said his daughter, Ellen of Amsterdam. “He thought the point was to memorize everything on the page, and he remembered everything. When he had his bar mitzvah, they gave him jazz records and they gave him opera records. He could recognize the nationality of an orchestra by its sound. In his jazz phase, he could tell you what session it was.’’
That ear was just as valuable when he became a journalist.
“He could listen to what people said in ways not everybody could do,’’ his daughter said.
After graduating from Amherst College in 1951, he went to Columbia University in New York City briefly for graduate work in philosophy, but left because he did not like the direction his academic discipline was taking in those years.
Drafted into the US Army, he caught the end of the Korean War as a writer for the Stars and Stripes military newspaper. Assignments could be dangerous, but so was what lay ahead.
“He told his students that he was shot at two times in Korea and three times in Chicago when he was reporting,’’ his daughter said.
After the Army, Mr. Ziff went to Chicago, where his brother was a student at the University of Chicago. So was Jane Flanders, whom he met through his brother’s circle of acquaintances. They married in 1957.
“My dad loved my mother so much,’’ said their daughter, who recalled one time when she glanced at her father’s face as he watched his wife sing an alto solo during a concert. “I was so moved by seeing how much he loved her, just watching her sing.’’
Mr. Ziff left Chicago in the late 1960s to teach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A couple of years later, UMass Amherst recruited him to build a journalism department.
A big guy with an even bigger mind, “he was physically imposing, had a bushy beard, and sometimes wore a pipe, so to speak,’’ Whitehead said. “He had a lot of real world savvy, but he had also acquired a lot of erudition, although he wore it pretty lightly.’’
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Ziff leaves a son, Donald of El Cerrito, Calif.; a brother, Larzer of Baltimore; four grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
The family will receive guests at the Ziffs’ Amherst home Friday at 2 p.m., with an informal Kaddish beginning at 4 p.m.
A memorial service will be held at noon July 22 in Memorial Hall at UMass Amherst.
Mr. Ziff “was more than a teacher of journalism, to many, many students,’’ Carpman said.
“He didn’t simply teach generations of students in the newsroom at the Chicago Daily News, at the University of Illinois, and then here at UMass Amherst; he was also an example of what they could be,’’ Whitehead said. “None of us could be all the things that he was, but a lot of us could be a few of those things, at least with his inspiration.’’