Wilbur Zelinsky: December 21, 1921-May 4, 2013

It is with great sadness that we share the news of the passing of Wilbur Zelinsky, professor emeritus, long-time faculty member in Penn State Geography, and renowned scholar. Wilbur passed peacefully at home on Saturday, May 4, 2013, surrounded by his family after a short illness.

Wilbur was for decades a leading figure in Geography at Penn State and the discipline, as well as in various interdisciplinary circles of research and scholarship. Wilbur's contributions were sustained and prolific. As many of you know Wilbur was wonderfully active until recently. His presence at the Coffee Hour and his productive engagements with the Department are legendary and will not be forgotten.


Karl Zimmerer
Professor and Head
Department of Geography

Joseph S. Wood (2015): Wilbur Zelinsky, 1921–2013: “A Curiosity Too Urgent to Be Throttled”1, Annals of
the Association of American Geographers, DOI: 10.1080/00045608.2015.1018769



Main news story and Zelinsky CV




Please share your remembrances of Wilbur with us via the webform at



Contributed remembrances are shown below


"Wilbur Zelinsky was not my advisor, but he was very helpful to me during my graduate studies.  He took a particular interest in me, perhaps because I had just completed serving in the US Army Viet Nam and had no financial aid when I began.  He provided me with employment during my first summer (you wondered how he got all that data on marriages in Centre County!) and helped get me a research assistantship during my second year. He was always concerned about how I was doing and gave me the idea for my masters thesis.  He had a great ""run"" and I'm sure will be sorely missed."    —Terry L. Hess (M.S. '77)


In orchestra one night, I looked over at the violin section and winked at Wilbur.  It was the start of a wonderful, fun flirtation that I shall dearly miss.  We would sneak up on each other and mess up the other's hair and run off.  I had the pleasure of dining with Wilbur and his late life love, June, (after the death of his wife) and was charmed that a man in his 80s could be as in love as a young man in his 20s.  His zest and passion for life will always be an inspiration to me.  The orchestra will never be the same..—Avis Jones, Nittany Valley Symphony




The comments already posted are a great tribute to Wilbur. I don't have a lot of specific memories. I just fondly remember Wilbur being Wilbur. I took one of his classes, it served up an essay topic that became a thesis under Peirce Lewis that I just never could finish. I was so pleased to be able to return to PSU for the 40th anniversary of coffee hour in 2008. The video of the talk is on the department website, Wilbur is the last speaker and it's classic. He even contemplates his own mortality. That night, Peirce, Wilbur, Ron Abler and a few others all went out for dinner. It turned into a long night that ended with drinks at Greg Knight's place. Missing everyone again thinking of it, especially Wilbur.—    Brian Banks (M.S. '84)



I attended a performance by the Nittany Valley Symphony last November, and who should I see on stage but our own Wilbur. The performance was splendid. He must have worked hard at the violin as in so many other pursuits. —Frank Hardisty (Ph.D. '03)


Wilbur was a great geographer and a highly respected colleague.  Even though he had retired by the time I joined the department, he remained active in research and as a member of the geography community.  My interactions with him—as he continued to coordinate the Coffee Hour colloquium series for a number of years—were always enlightening and filled with his trademark dry humor.  He will be greatly missed.—Andrew M. Carleton, Professor of Geography, Department of Geography, Penn State




Some selected memories of a friend, neighbor, teacher, and scholar:

  • “You are invited to my 100th birthday, if you are around.” (said many, many times and especially if I ever complained about my health or mentioned an illness). I am only 40+ years younger!
  • Wilbur always asked me about my family, especially my daughters and invariably signed off by reminding me to treat them nicely.
  • Collaborating with Wilbur and the many, many meetings (at the table in his home). The challenge of trying to edit Wilbur’s prose (and water down some of his more brazen comments).
  • The many phone calls. Wilbur often called me early in the morning (at home and the office) with a question about people, places, maps, and data.  The conversations, especially the early morning phone calls, usually began … “Happy X [insert famous or not so famous person's name here] birthday.”
  • Meeting Wilbur on campus, frequently in the library. Asking me what I was readin and telling me what he was reading.
  • Listening to his questions and/or observations at the DOG Coffee Hour. Wilbur’s comments were frequently perceptive, clever, invariably witty and with the occasional barb.
  • Seeing him throw and catch young children (including my own which could be a frightening scene).

—Stephen Matthews, Friend since 1989; Neighbor 1994-2002; Collaborator post 1995. Associate Professor of Sociology, Anthropology, and Demography (Courtesy in Geography), Penn State.



Wilbur was one of my best professors at Penn State. I learned Population Geography from him and always looked forward to seeing him at meetings. He lived a long and interesting life, & will be missed by the entire PSUDOG community.—David Rain (M.S. '93, Ph.D. '97)



Wilbur is one of those people who will never die— he will live on in the memories and traditions of everyone that knew him. I think of him almost daily; I post, outside my office door in a high-traffic hallway, a "map challenge" —a thematic map with the legend removed—and challenge (and tease) passers-by to reason out the theme of the map. Guess where I got THAT idea? Rest well, Wilbur —you will continue to inspire. —Rob Edsall (M.S. '95, Ph.D. '01), Carthage College



Wilbur once visited WVU, soon after I had a position here, to give a colloquium. Following the obligatory drive around Morgantown, he commented with a twinkle in his eye, "this must be the ugliest town East of the Mississippi." Then after a moment's thought, "Why stop at the Mississippi?" I have treasured that as long as I have lived here. WIZDOG lives on in all of us. —Gregory Elmes (M.S. '74, Ph.D. '79), West Virginia University



I first met Wilbur Zelinsky in 1995 when I arrived at University Park, PA from Wales to begin studying for my masters. I applied to Penn State because of Wilbur Zelinsky. As an undergraduate I had read his “Cultural Geography of the United States” and numerous of his articles dating back to the 1950s. When I arrived at Penn State I made a point of knocking on his door and introducing myself. He was typing on his old typewriter. I came to learn he was almost always typing on his old typewriter. I remember the conversation well. After listening to my bumbling about my interests he told me how nowadays it is impossible to read everything in one's field, even one's subfield. It didn't stop him from trying. As anyone who has read his work or who has had the unique pleasure of taking a seminar with him (I did so on the topic of ethnicity) will know that he covered more ground than most and deftly interpreted all that he encountered. The scope of his writing on American culture and landscape, some of the most eloquent writing in geography, bears testament to his ability to encapsulate his field. A student of the great Carl Ortwin Sauer, perhaps less so than other proponents of Sauer's ‘Berkeley School,’ Zelinsky evaded simple categorization and pigeon-holing as a scholar, despite 'attacks' on his super-organic notion of culture by those British Cultural Studies-influenced-upstarts. "Water off a duck's back," he told me, and now it is those young upstarts who are the old guard in cultural geography. Lately, when I am in the Millennium Stadium and 20,000 or more people spontaneously break into in the same song in support of their national rugby team, I wonder if there isn't something about culture that transcends us, even if it is essentially of our own making. And that's the point. Wilbur Zelinsky's geography allowed room to wonder and space to think, and it did so in a most accessible way. Year-after-year, and sometime after I had left Penn State, I would see Wilbur at the national AAG conference and I would make the point of re-introducing myself to him. After the initial puzzlement at my doing so he would graciously continue as if he remembered me and tell me about his latest project. It was always a privilege talking to him and that's how I will always view my very brief association with him. —Gareth John (M.S. ’97), St. Cloud State University



Professor Zelinsky gave me drive and ambition to complete a degree in Geography in 1983. His enthusiasm was contagious and kept me grounded during my undergraduate studies at Penn State. Professor Zelinsky was truly a Teacher, Scholar and Friend and I will always remember him as such.

—Catherine Wolff  (B.S. '83)



I was sorry to learn of the passing of Dr. Zelinsky. As a 1st year grad in 1995, I got to know him through the (then-mandatory) Coffee Hour. I found him warm, approachable, witty, and intellectually curious. He relished exposing us to new, interesting ideas, especially through the Friday Coffee Hour. He embodied the notion that the discipline of Geography has a wide scope, and can be extended as a line of enquiry for many areas and issues. I know he made my time as a grad student more enjoyable. My thoughts and prayers go to his family and the Penn State Department of Geography community. —James Habron (M.S. student, '95-’97)



When I was an undergrad at Texas A&M, my geography professors frequently gave us readings from "The Cultural Geography of the United States." His approach to culture and landscape was one of the reasons I decided to go to further study geography in graduate school and go to Penn State. —Robin Shudak (M.S. '00)



I was not smart enough as an undergraduate to know to take Wilbur for a course, but I used to drop by his office to ask stupid questions. I had no idea I was pestering one of the great cultural geographers. Even though I was not a student of his he always was generous with his time and patient with me. I was thrilled when he attended the PAS conference in Baton Rouge in 2008 and I was able to talk to him there. —Wayne Brew (B.S. '81), Montgomery County Community College



I only had one class w/Dr. Zelinsky, but it was so interesting...GEOG401. Not sure if it still exists in any form, but at that time it was something like Historical & Cultural Geography of North America. The one memory that sticks out the most was his discussion of war memorials in the country, & how there were very few to the Spanish-American War. My hometown of Binghamton, NY, was celebrating its sesquicentennial that year & running short articles in the newspaper about interesting sites in the town, one of which is the Spanish-American War Memorial of a running soldier. I clipped the article & mailed it to Dr. Zelinsky that summer & got a lovely note back from him. Dr. Zelinsky will be missed for sure.
—Sheryl Kron Rhodes (B.S. '85), State University of New York at Geneseo



I was at my very first AAG Meeting in Boston in 1998. I was a first year PhD student at Clark and had been introduced to Wilbur's work in a first-year mandatory class, 'History of Geographical Thought' with Bill Koelsch. I had stopped into a conference hotel sandwich shop to grab lunch; it was packed, with only one open seat next to two nicely dressed gentlemen engaged in familiar conversation. One of them, seeing I was looking for a seat, waved me over and patted the seat next to him as an offer to sit. I did and was thankful. They were John Frasier Hart and Wilbur Zelinsky; Wilbur had motioned me over to their table. It was a bit intimidating, to say the least. However, instead of resuming their discussion they turned their attention to me, introduced themselves and began to inquire about myself, school, etc. For the next twenty minutes, we three sat and spoke as if three old friends. This was my introduction to the AAG and to Wilbur Zelinsky (as well as JFH). It could not have been more warm and welcoming. It will always remain one of my fondest AAG memories. —Alec Brownlow, DePaul University



Prof. Zelinksy had a remarkable career. In my 2003 Professional Geographer article I reported that Wilbur Zelinksy received the most number of votes among cultural geographers as the "Most Outstanding Practitioners of Cultural Geography." He deserved it. Wilbur, thanks for all you gave to geography and to me and my career. —Jeff Smith, Kansas State University



In 1960, I began my career in Geography at Southern Illinois University. Professor Zelinsky was on the staff there at that time. I worked for him my first year in graduate school as a research assistant (on a financial aid package obtained by Professor Ted Schmudde, who got me into geography) and took two classes from him. They were tough, demanding courses, but I gained tremendously and believe they helped lay the foundation for my staying in the field. Wilbur was indeed a force and Geography has lost a giant. —Bob J. Walter, Ohio University



I always enjoyed having Wilbur as a colleague when I was at Penn State. I especially remember all the weird things he had hanging from his office ceiling and his mischievous humor. He loved the discipline and the department. —Diana Liverman, University of Arizona



I had the pleasure of being Wilbur's stand partner in the Nittany Valley Symphony's violin section many times over the past 30 years. He was always very energetic, and sometimes a comedian. He also kept us up to date on many moments in musical history. Wilbur - you will be missed!!! — Eileen Christman



Wilbur Zelinsky was a kind, considerate and very intelligent man who will always hold a special place in my affections. He was a person who had a confidence born of a deep inner strength and he could make one feel much stronger as a person with very few words that came naturally to him, something I experienced and witnessed on many occasions. With the loss many years ago of Peter Gould and now Wilbur, I fear that the spirit of intellectual enquiry and empirical reasoning they promoted with the discipline of Geography has become further diluted. However, Professor Zelinsky would articulate that sentiment in a much kinder, simpler and expressive way than I ever could, with the consequence that his softly spoken words would carry a forceful authority that I could only hope to achieve. The memory of Wilbur Zelinsky will always act as a guiding force in my life and career as an academic.— Duncan Connors, University of Buckingham



I had the pleasure of taking courses by Professor Zelinsky. I enjoyed them very much and learned a great deal from him. This is a sad day for the Penn State Geography family. RIP Wilbur.   —Eric Feldman (B.S. '86)


I remember Dr. Zelinsky, very well.  I took his Population Geography course, in 1970 or early 1971, as an undergrad.  I very much enjoyed the course and his in-depth insight.  Population analysis is one of my favorite areas.  In 1975, he was (as Dept. Chair) instrumental in my beginning to pursue the Ph.D., in Geography, at Penn State.  However, I was having too much fun, in State College, over that summer (having just completed the two-year Masters program in City Planning, at Rutgers), in addition to being sidetracked by required US Army Reserve temporary active duty at the Army War College, in Carlisle, and did not do the required summer readings.  I instead chose to accept a position as Local Planning Chief of the Cape Fear Council of Governments, in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the rest is history.  Wilbur was a very wonderful and dedicated man.   Best to all.  —John R Ingram II (B.A. '71)



I worked as a research assistant for Wilbur back in the late 70s along with Randy Provan.  We were doing a big energy study project and we nicknamed it ZEST - for Zelinsky's Energy Study Team.  I think he was tickled by the name.  I have also played violin along with him at the Nittany Valley Symphony for 35 years.  He played in our February 16th concert - just months before his passing.  And, ever the lifelong learner, he and I talked about and I lent him a book about the dust bowl - by Timothy Egan called "The Worst Hard Time." Wilbur stunned me by saying that he REMEMBERED the dust bowl!  He was an amazing man!     —Nancy VanLandingham  (M.S. '80)