Wilbur Zelinsky, professor emeritus at Penn State University, died on May 4, 2013, at age 91. He was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1921. Described as a cultural geography icon and explorer of American life and significance, he used his eyes to observe the differences in human landscape, while studying and using data to find deeper information. He inspired countless students to examine culture, literature and music.
From 1959-1973, he held many levels of leadership roles for the Association of American Geographers, including president from 1972-1973.
During his career, AAG recognized his contributions and achievements. In 2006, Zelinsky was given the AAG Presidential Achievement Award for his long and distinguished career in geography; for the influence of his publications across a wide range of topics in human geography; and for his early and fervent support for the incorporation of more women into the discipline. He received the AAG John Brinckerhoff Jackson Prize in 1992 for his book, The Cultural Geography of the United States. And in 1966, the association awarded him Honors for Meritorious Contributions.
During AAG’s 2005 annual meeting, the Cultural Geography Specialty Group honored him at special sessions (I and II). The contents of those seminars resulted in a special tribute issue of The Geographical Review.
Joseph Wood, professor and provost at the University of Baltimore once noted, “For six decades Wilbur Zelinsky has been an original and authentic voice in American cultural geography. His curiosity is endless, his intellectual appetite voracious. He seeks human meaning in every facet of material life and every corner of the American scene.”
Among Zelinsky's many awards, he also received a Guggenheim Fellowship for geography and environmental studies in the social sciences in 1980 and the Cullum Geographical Medal of the American Geographical Society in 2001.
His large body of work includes more than 200 books, atlases, chapters, articles, reviews, reports and other writings.
He received his bachelor’s degree in 1944 and his doctorate in 1953 from the University of California, Berkeley. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1946 with a master’s degree.
During World War II, he served as a map draftsman with several companies. He then worked as a terrain analyst for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in occupied Germany. After the war, Zelinsky accepted an appointment from 1948 to 1952 at the University of Georgia. From 1952-1954, he returned to the University of Wisconsin as a researcher.
From the mid- to late-50s, he was an industrial location analyst for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway during which time he also was an adjunct professor at Wayne State University. He then taught at Southern Illinois University for a few years before joining the department of geography at Penn State University in 1963. He remained there for the duration of his career.
Zelinsky’s research and scholarship linked many people and disciplines. His work in the 1960s with Penn State professors of sociology, economics and anthropology created a population research center, which would later become the Graduate Program in Demography. From 1972-1973, he served as the first director of what is now the Population Research Institute. He also served as chair of the geography department and was a fixture at the weekly Coffee Hour promoting interdisciplinary scholarship and collegiality.
Peirce F. Lewis, professor emeritus at Penn State once wrote, "… Wilbur Zelinsky had been an icon to me long before I ever met him—and that was back in the early 1960s. In fact, Wilbur Zelinsky was one of the few icons that I knew about in geography, although I did not think to call him that. To me … Zelinsky's insight seemed a vision from on high."
He also played the violin. In 1967, he performed during the State College Music Guild’s first concert featuring Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 5 at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. Although the group has changed it’s name to the Nittany Valley Symphony since that first concert, Zelinsky had continued to play in the violin section right up through the February 16, 2013, concert featuring “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Symphony Executive Director Roberta Strebel remarked, “It’s funny, you know. I never really thought of Wilbur as being a long-time professor of geography. I always thought of him as a violinist.”
Zelinsky’s lifelong explorations connected people both personally and professionally. The field of cultural geography and the greater communities in which he participated will continue to be stimulated by his example.