Ralph Whitehead remembers having a drink with Howard Ziff in a barroom in Northampton when Ziff pointed out another patron on a nearby stool.
“You see that guy over there?” Ziff asked, and proceeded to deduce — correctly — from his shoes, tattoos, and the way he walked that the man had served in the Merchant Marine.
The founding chairman of the journalism program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Ziff was “a streetwise intellectual,” Whitehead says. Born in hardscrabble Holyoke, he’d earned a degree in philosophy at Amherst College and worked as a reporter on the streets of Chicago.
Ziff believed journalists needed a broad understanding of the world, and, to this day, journalism majors at UMass are required to take courses in history, law, and ethics along with writing and reporting, plus a 15-credit minor in another field.
“ ‘The world is a text and your job is to read it deeply,’ ” Whitehead, who still teaches at the school, remembers Ziff advising students.
“He definitely sent the message that you needed to become well rounded,” says Carol Rosenberg, an award-winning reporter and graduate of the program who covers Guantanamo for the Miami Herald and says she’s grateful for the courses she took in sociology and Middle Eastern studies at UMass.
About 300 students still major in journalism at UMass, the largest number of any public university in New England. The program will soon move into a new classroom building, and plans are afoot to memorialize Ziff there. He died in 2012.
It was a big loss, says Whitehead. Ziff, he says, “was a school of journalism unto himself.”