Cover photo for WILBUR ZELINSKY's Obituary


b. December 21, 1921


December 21, 1921 -- May 4, 2013

Penn State Professor Emeritus of Geography Wilbur Zelinsky -- an internationally-renowned figure in the fields of American population, cultural, and social geography, who deeply influenced multiple generations of scholars in those disciplines and beyond throughout his lifetime -- died at his home in State College on May 4, 2013, with his daughters at his side. He was 91.

Wilbur, known to many as Wolf, was born in Chicago, Illinois, December 21, 1921, the son of Russian immigrants Louis and Esther Mastoon Zelinsky. Academically gifted, he graduated as valedictorian of Chicago's Edwin G. Foreman High School, before continuing his education at Wright Junior College and the University of Chicago. While having entertained thoughts throughout his adolescence of translating his love affair with the English language into life as a poet, the artistic skill he exhibited as a child and his deep love of all things cartographic eventually led him to recognize and pursue his avocation as a geographer. He obtained his bachelor's degree with honors in geography from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1944 and, in 1946, his master's from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. After four years as assistant professor of geography at the University of Georgia, Athens, he returned to UC Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate in 1953.

In the years both before and after the completion of his Ph.D., Wilbur engaged in a variety of academic and work pursuits, including positions as map draftsman for companies in Washington, DC, Chicago, and New York City during World War II; research and teaching assistant in geography at the University of Wisconsin; and in 1946, at the conclusion of the war, terrain analyst in occupied Germany for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. From the mid- to late 1950's, he worked as an industrial analyst for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in Detroit, Michigan, while simultaneously serving as an adjunct professor at Wayne State University. In 1963, after four years at Southern Illinois University, he was invited to join the geography department at Penn State, where he happily remained for the duration of his long and distinguished academic career.

While the breadth and depth of his geographical interests were far-reaching, Wilbur is best known for his groundbreaking research and writings on the land that was closest to his heart, the United States. That focus resulted in a series of highly regarded books: A Prologue to Population Geography (1966); Nation into State: The Shifting Symbolic Foundations of American Nationalism (1988); The Cultural Geography of the United States (1973,1992); Exploring the Beloved Country: Geographic Forays into American Society and Culture (1994); and Not Yet a Placeless Land: Tracking an Evolving American Geography (2011). Of the several books he also co-authored, he was particularly proud of having spearheaded the production of The Atlas of Pennsylvania , a truly monumental undertaking involving many years' preparation, published in 1989.

His large body of work also included well over 200 published journal articles, book reviews and notes, bibliographies, and research reports, including ones supported or commissioned by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, Encyclopedia Brittanica , and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Intellectually engaged to the end, at the time of his death he was immersed in yet another major research project, while a completed book manuscript awaited publication.

Wilbur's contributions to the field of geography did not go unrecognized during his lifetime. In addition to serving on dozens of editorial and advisory boards and commissions, he was a frequent guest lecturer, both in this country and abroad. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for geography and environmental studies in the social sciences in 1980, he garnered numerous other awards over the years: The Society for the North American Cultural Survey's Distinguished Service Award, The Pennsylvania Geographical Society Distinguished Scholar Award, the National Council for Geographical Education's Distinguished Mentor Award, and the American Geographical Society's prestigious Cullum Medal.

His years of active involvement in the Association of American Geographers, serving in a multitude of capacities, culminated in his ascension to the presidency in 1972-3. The AAG further honored him with its Award for Meritorious Contributions to the Field of Geography in 1966, the John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize in 1992 and, in 2006, the 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."

As much as Wilbur lived and breathed geography, delighting in exploring all the questions that it posed to him over the decades of his career and inspiring countless colleagues and students along the way, it was far from the sum total of his world. His high energy and exuberance manifested itself in other spheres, as well -- as an aficionado of literature and the arts, groan-worthy punster, animal lover, world traveler, loving father and husband, and committed political and social progressive. A violinist, he played in both chamber groups and orchestras throughout his life, including the Nittany Valley Symphony, of which he was a founding member. And as any one who knew him can attest, he was Mozart's biggest, albeit often quite insufferable, fan.

On July 5, 1944, Wilbur eloped with the former Gladys Epstein, who died in 1997. He was also predeceased by a sister, Miriam Shavel of Chicago, and the writer June Rachuy Brindel, a companion of many years. He is survived by two daughters, Hollis Zelinsky of State College and Karen Zelinsky Kite and husband, John of Pennsylvania Furnace, as well as close friends Judith H. Johnsrud and Leon Glicenstein, State College, and his cousin, Daniel Zelinsky and wife, Zelda, of Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Anyone wishing to join in a celebration of the life of this remarkable man is cordially invited to a memorial service and reception to be held 10 a.m. Saturday, October 26, 2013, at Penn State's Pasquerilla Spiritual Center. Contact for more information. Memorial contributions in Wilbur's name may be made to Amnesty International (, Resist (, or PAWS (, the local no-kill animal shelter founded by his late wife.

To order memorial trees or send flowers to the family in memory of WILBUR ZELINSKY, please visit our flower store.
Send Flowers

Send Flowers

Plant A Tree

Plant A Tree


Visits: 3

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the
Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Service map data © OpenStreetMap contributors