Freak accident claims U.C. historian Zelnik

In the era when “Never trust anyone over 30” was a freshly minted witticism, U.C. Berkeley free-speech activists trusted Reginald Zelnik. He was, after all, just 28 when he arrived on campus in 1964. But he was also an acting assistant professor, so the faculty trusted him as well.

“As a historian, I like to remind people that nothing is quite as beautiful as it appears on the surface,” Zelnik recently told the Contra Costa Times. “But the free-speech movement was as good as it gets. It certainly never got that good again.”

Zelnik, who remained politically active in a 40-year tenure as a U.C. Russian historian, was killed on campus on Monday, May 17, when he was struck by a water delivery truck. He had been hurrying to deliver a speech at a party held in honor of a longtime colleague.

Zelnik, who was feisty, healthy and in the midst of several big projects, died on the scene. A non-observant Jew described by friends and colleagues as oozing New York Jewish in his humor, style and sensibilities, he was 68.

“We’ve had a lot of deaths in the department. And when people are in their 80s or have Alzheimer’s you can say, ‘Well, the time has come.’ But Reggie, he was absolutely fine,” lamented Professor Gerald Feldman, a longtime colleague.

“He was very original; he used original sources and got a hold of diaries and all kinds of records. He was a terrific teacher; he had a Jewish sense of humor. But, at the same time, he also knew all the Russian jokes. He would be very lively, but at the same time, very rigorous. He was quite demanding, but very much loved.”

Over the past four decades, Zelnik built U.C. Berkeley’s Russian history department into one of the nation’s finest. Fellow U.C. Russian historian Professor Yuri Slezkine described him as “a pioneer of bottom-up social history in the field, one of the first to write about the everyday experiences of workers in late imperial Russia.”

But, he was also “a great mentor, probably one of the greatest mentors in the field of Russian history in this country. No one was better than Reggie at that.”

He was also a lively wit who loved to play the mandolin and sing songs in several languages, and was a passionate fan of the San Francisco Giants ever since his childhood in the Bronx.

Zelnik is survived by his wife, Elaine; children Pamela and Michael; and grandson Jaxon Zelnik-Stuhr, all of Berkeley. He is also survived by brother Martin Zelnik of New York City.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.