Campus, News, Obituaries

Robert Zelnick, former journalism department chair, dies at 79

Robert Zelnick, an accomplished journalist and retired journalism professor at Boston University, died Monday due to complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Zelnick was a news correspondent with ABC news for 21 years before he began teaching at BU, according to his profile on College of Communication website. He began teaching journalism in 1998 and was chair of the journalism department from 2002 to 2006.

At ABC, Zelnick informed the public about national politics, the Pentagon, Israel and Moscow, according to the COM website. He was the executive editor of the 1977 Nixon-Frost Interviews — Nixon’s first televised appearance since resigning from the presidency.

Anne Donohue, an associate professor of journalism in COM, said she first met Zelnick when she was a young reporter at ABC and was intimidated by him, but later learned that he had a big heart.

“He was the big boss and I was a lowly desk assistant but he was quiet and serious to me and a little intimidating,” Donohue said.

Donohue said once she knew him better she learned that he was actually very caring and had a great sense of humor.

“He was a brilliant mind, just an extremely sharp thinker, quick, and a deep thinker,” Dohohue said. “[He was] also incredibly funny, witty, deadpan sense of humor … and I think a very big heart.”

Zelnick began as a freelance journalist writing from Vietnam in 1967, according to the COM website. He won two Emmy awards and two Gavel awards for his reporting.

He also wrote six books, including “Backfire: A Reporter’s Look at Affirmative Action” and “Gore: A Political Life.”

At BU, Zelnick ran the Great Debate program, which gave students platforms to debate two sides of current event issues, Donohue said.

“[He] relished in sort of the competitive combativeness of the argument, but always could have an argument without any ill-will or malice,” Donohue said. “It was always on an intellectual plane and civilized.”

Donohue said Zelnick was always very supportive when she knew him at BU. When her father was dying, he helped her through it.

“I was supposed to go on a sabbatical to China and was unable to go and he was incredibly supportive in helping me through that difficult time,” Donohue said. “He just had a very generous personality would do anything for you.”

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