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Free Speech Defender Dies in UC Accident

By Richard Brenneman
Friday May 21, 2004

Reginald Zelnik, a much-beloved UC Berkeley professor of Russian history and a passionate defender of Free Speech Movement (FSM) activists in the 1960s, died on campus Monday afternoon. He was 68. 

“He was the conscience of the university campus when it came to issues of free speech, and his commitment never varied,” said New York University associate professor Robert Cohen, a Berkeley graduate who collaborated with Zelnik on a magisterial history of the FSM.  

Alameda County Coroner’s investigator Dan A pperson said Zelnik was struck by an Alhambra Water truck. The vehicle was backing up when it struck Zelnik, who was walking in the same direction in front of Moses Hall on South Hall Road east of Sather Gate. 

UC Police Lt. Mitch Celaya said that while t he investigation into the accident is continuing, preliminary evidence indicates that the truck’s backup warning bell was functioning properly at the time of the accident. 

Zelnik had chaired the History Department of the College of Letters and Science fr om 1994 to 1997 and served as vice chair and acting chair several times in the past two decades. 

He chaired UC’s Center for Slavic and East European Studies during the 1970s, and he was walking to the center at the time of his death, according to a famil y friend. 

“He was really very, very special,” said fellow UC history professor Yuri Slezkine. “He was incredibly generous—effortlessly generous. He was an incomparably wise man, both as a historian and as a human being. He was a great scholar, patient an d greatly respected by his colleagues.” 

Slezkine said Zelnik had more students across the country than any other teacher of Russian history. “A lot of people came to Berkeley to study with him. He’s the main reason the university is a major center for hi storians of Russia.” 

A Russian by birth, Slezkine said Zelnik was internationally renowned and highly respected in Russia, both now and during the Soviet era.  

Zelnik wrote numerous books and countless articles. His specialty was late Russian imperial history between the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, with a focus on blue collar workers, “how they lived, how they thought, and how they talked,” Slezkine said. 

Though his academic specialties were Russian and Soviet history, Zelnik was best known around Berkeley for his involvement in Free Speech Movement studies, an interest that began with shortly after his arrival on campus forty years ago. 

As a member of the “Committee of 200” of UCB faculty members forced to support Free Speech Movement acti vists, he fought for greater freedom of speech for students and challenged the repressive measures taken by campus administrators and the board of regents. 

“He was one of those responsible for the December 8 Resolution,” Cohen said. That 1964 measure, ad opted by the Academic Senate by a seven-to-one margin, affirmed the free speech rights of students over the wishes of administrators and UC Regents. 

“Ever since then, he was a defender of free speech rights for both Left and Right, and he took the lead i n defending the right of Jean Kirkpatrick to speak on campus,” Cohen said. 

Kirkpatrick, an outspoken hardline conservative appointed as ambassador to the United Nations by President Ronald Reagan, had been targeted by campus radicals intent on disrupting her appearance on campus. 

During the FSM era Zelnik formed what would become a lifelong friendship with Mario Savio, the best-known FSM activist.  

“Reggie was a leader of the faculty in support of the Free Speech Movement,” said Lynn Hollander, an FSM activist who was married to Savio until his death and worked with Zelnik on his history of the FSM. “He was instrumental in organizing the young Turks on the faculty. 

“I really can’t say anything more now,” she said, her voice resonant with grief.  

UC C hancellor Robert M. Berdahl called Zelnik’s death “a terrible tragedy for the campus.” 

“As a young faculty member in 1964 he courageously defended students during the Free Speech Movement,” Berdahl said, adding that he “was an extraordinarily popular pr ofessor. . .and a personal friend of mine.” 

“He was a wonderful man and an activist,” said Harold Adler, curator of the Free Speech Cafe on the UC campus. “He helped us get going. He was a brilliant man, a nice guy.” 

Adler said he last spoke to Zelnik w hen both were participating in a reading at Cody’s Books. “What a horrible, tragic loss. He’ll be missed by a lot of people.” 

“Oh, shit! This is just terrible,” sighed Todd Gitlin when a reporter informed him of Zelnik’s death. A former Berkeley activist and now a professor of journalism and sociology at the Columbia University School of Journalism, Gitlin said Zelnik “was a wonderful human being, a man of impeccable integrity, always respectful and clear-headed,” 

“I saw him in Berkeley in March and we agreed to meet in Dallas later this year at a conference on the Free Speech Movement.” 

After a moment’s pause Gitlin said, It’s horrible. I’m shaking. He was a dear, dear man and an honor to the university.” 

In addition to his personal defense of Free S peech Movement activists, Zelnik was a scholar of the movement, and co-editor of the definitive text on the era, The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s. 

Cohen said the collaboration began when he organized a 1996 session of the Am erican Historical Association on Mario Savio shortly after the activist’s death. 

“It was originally going to be a small collection, but when people heard Reggie was working on it, they all wanted to contribute,” Cohen said. “That’s how it grew to over 50 0 pages.” 

Cohen said Zelnik’s contribution, a chapter on the faculty’s part in the Free Speech Movement, “is the best piece ever written on the role of faculty in an student movement. Because the media portrayed the events in Berkeley as a student revolt, people didn’t realize it was also a faculty revolt. 

“It was fabulous to work with him on this. He was a brilliant historian, very thoughtful and fair-minded, a fabulous editor, and he had a great sense about how to write history.” 

Cohen was nine years old in 1964, and hadn’t taken a course from Zelnik during the years he was earning his doctorate in American history at Cal. 

“The fact that he could write American history as well as he wrote Russian history was a testament to his brilliance,” Cohen sai d. “I know I couldn’t write Russian history.”  

Cohen said news of his colleague’s death “has been so upsetting. It’s been good to have a chance to talk about it.”  

Zelnik was born May 8, 1936, in New York City. He joined the Navy after receiving his bachelor’s from Princeton in 1956, and enrolled two years later at Stanford, where he received a master’s in 1961 and a doctorate five years later. 

He is survived by his spouse, Elaine, a son, Michael of Oakland, a daughter and son-in-law, Pamela Zelnik and Mark Stuhr, a five-year-old grandson, Jaxon Zelnik-Stuhr, all of the Berkeley, and a brother, Martin, who lives in New York. 

No memorial services have been set, though a family friend said the event will be scheduled to enable his many friends and co lleagues from across the country to attend. à