Dear Professor Zinn

BY HRAG YEDALIAN

“Dear Professor Zinn.”

That’s how all of my emails to him began. Sometimes, I would be more “casual” and address him only as “Professor.” I could never muster up the courage to call him by his first name – I never found it appropriate. I simply had too much respect for him, and always felt compelled to include some sort of “title.” “Professor” was the one I settled on.

The last time I emailed him was on July 15, 2008. A dear friend of mine was working on a project and discovered that Zinn would be in Los Angeles for a few days, and wanted to know if he would be available for an on-camera interview. I told my friend I would be happy to ask. I sent an email at 9:24 p.m Pacific Standard Time, and got a response from him exactly an hour and six minutes later. It was 1:30 a.m. in Massachusetts and the 85 year old man was on his computer, responding to emails. In typical Zinn fashion, he was open and always willing to help. The text of his email read:

Dear Hrag:

Have your friend call me on my cell phone. 617-680-6077.

Best wishes,
Howard

He had never heard of my friend or his fledging experimental project before, but wanted to lend a hand. He was asking to receive a call on his cell from a complete stranger even though his schedule was packed beyond belief. I wish I could claim that he was willing to help because I asked, but, I don’t think that was the case. He was simply being himself: kind, warm, and giving. I had never before met an individual who personified the term “good” the way that he did. Goodness radiated off of him, and I am certain that even those who disagreed with his social and political ideas viewed him as an exemplary human being.

The author of over twenty books, Zinn was a prominent historian who changed the way American history was perceived and studied. His best known publication, “A People’s History of the United States,” has sold over one million copies. It is this book that ties my generation (a generation that was born a decade after the end of the turbulent 1960s) to Zinn, as it has become required reading in many high school and college classrooms all across the United States. But, to those who lived through and remember the earlier decades, Zinn stood out as a seminal figure in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. And, while many activists who served as the poster-boys and girls of the 60s faded and disappeared altogether with the end of the era, Zinn’s voice persisted and was heard up until his death on Wednesday, January 27. He would have turned 88 years old in August.

I had the privilege of meeting the Professor during the summer of 2003, while working on a documentary about legendary civil rights attorney Charles R. Garry (Garabed Garabedian). Having learned that I was seeking to include Zinn in the film, one of my interviewees said, “Oh! Let me give you his phone number.” I dialed the number and, after several rings, an answering machine connected. I was completely shocked – I had no clue that the phone number I had dialed was to his home phone line! I did my best to hide my nervousness, but I’m certain that my cracking voice gave it all away. I left the message not knowing if he would be interested in my project, or, if, quite frankly, he would even respond to my call. But, less than two hours later, my cell phone lit up, and the caller ID read: “Howard Zinn.”

“We are looking for Howard Zinn’s office,” I told the student-worker at the front desk of Zinn’s department at Boston University. We had arrived a little early, and the Professor had alerted the staff to unlock his office door so that we could set-up our gear. This was the first time I learned about Zinn’s unwavering habit called “Trust.” He simply trusted people, and appeared not to care about the circumstances. He always said “yes,” and was never the least bit calculating. He trusted us to be in his office – unsupervised – and, after his arrival, gave me all the time I needed to complete the interview. He seemed to ignore the fact that I was a first time filmmaker and treated the process with the same amount of respect he would have given to, let’s say, a journalist with the New York Times.

Perhaps, he may have respected what I was doing a little more, because he saw a 22 year-old attempting to piece together a “Movement” film with a non-existent budget. In any case, he did a good job overlooking the fact that, up until the end of the interview, my voice was still cracking. He listened to what I was saying – not how it came out.

After the film was completed, I sent him a copy and waited for his thoughts. He wrote: “Thanks, Hrag, for sending a copy of THE PEOPLE’S ADVOCATE. My wife and I watched it, fascinated, and, despite the grim events throughout the film, inspired by Garry and his magnificent attempts to fight injustice on so many different fronts.” He only had one criticism, which he later told me: the fonts used in the title sequences of the film were too small and hard to read. With so much he could have nit-picked about, he chose the most practical problem the film possessed. Again, he was a kind man and saw the best in everything. (I promptly corrected the “readability” issue for the film-festival version of the documentary.)

Although there are many things I remember from my interactions with him, I will never forget the one attribute that I found most endearing: his penchant to respond to emails with lightning fast speed. Most people find that it’s common courtesy to respond to an email within 24 hours of its receipt. The Professor seemed to believe that the 1-hour mark is a more suiting cut off point. Here are some examples:

Email sent at 5:02 p.m. His response received at 5:53 p.m.
Another sent at 3:46 p.m. Email received at 3:55 p.m.
A response issued at 5:38 p.m. to an email I sent at 5:34 p.m.
And, his personal best: sent at 12:36 p.m. received at 12:38 p.m.

I was really convinced that the Professor was truly an anomaly in this regard, until I realized that it ran “in the family.” One day, I sent an email to Zinn’s dear friend and long-time colleague, Noam Chomsky. The email was submitted at 9:17 p.m. I got a thorough response twenty-one minutes later. It was past mid-night where he lived. I fell in love with him immediately because he too seemed to operate along the “Zinn guidelines” I had been fortunate to be exposed to.

The Professor will be deeply missed by all the people he touched through the generosity of his heart. He was truly a complete and wonderful human being.

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6 Comments

  1. Bethel Bilezikian Charkoudian said:

    Hrag — Thank you for your memories of this wonderful human being.  Howard Zinn valued the work of all of us who struggled to right the wrongs of the world. He encouraged us, never angered by the roadblocks, never discouraged by the long and arduous road ahead. We should follow his example.  God rest his soul.

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  3. Ara said:

    Thank you Hrag for sharing with us your experiences with Howard Zinn. I didn’t meet Howard Zinn, but his ideas and analysis of economic, social and political events, expressed his books, articles, interviews and lectures, affected me. He believed in justice and fought for the oppressed and exploited. I listened to his lectures through David Barsamian’s Alternative Radio and to his interviews through the progressive radio station, KPFK and Alternative Radio. He is a true progressive activist with full of energy and optimism. Howard Zinn inspired me and gave me hope. You could buy his fascinating lectures and interviews through Alternativeradio.org.

  4. Glenn Herosian said:

    Hrag,
    Thanks for your moving comments about Professor Zinn.  You could not be more accurate.
    I was proud to have been one of his students in 1969 when I attended BU.  One of my best friends and one of his students became an author and expert in Black Muslims in America – and Prof Zinn always showed him the kindness and support of a true Mentor.

    His inspiration was a factor in leading me into Third World ecomonics and African Studies. 
    At that time there was a strong anti-war movement, and Prof Zinn was not only our moral leader, but he embedded in us all the humanist perspective and necessary skepticism which allowed us to never lose our faith in each other eventhough we did not approve of some of the actions of our government.
    He was our generation’s Diogynes and we can only hope to emulate his example for those following us.
    Sincerely,
    Glenn Herosian 

  5. Lori said:

    Hrag,
    Thanks for sharing. I just read his obituary in The Week. They had this great quote of his “If you look at history from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated, it’s a different story”. Perphaps if more people thought like him the world would be better served.

  6. John Achoukian said:

    Thank you Hrag for sharing your experiences with Howard Zinn, his “A People’s History of the United States” should be part of American History curriculum in every classroom. I share the feelings of the others who commented, and although Howard Zinn was one of the most insightful historians, authors and activists of our time, I think that his examples represent how a human being should be.

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