In Memoriam: Jerry Zaslove, professor emeritus

July 02, 2021

Jerry Zaslove, professor emeritus in the Simon Fraser University Departments of English and Humanities, passed away on June 23rd, 2021. After completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Washington, Jerry taught at SFU from its founding in 1965 to his retirement in 2000. He was a former Chair of the English department and the founding Director, in 1983, of the Institute for the Humanities. He also played a lot of basketball.

Like many who worked, collaborated, and conspired with Jerry, I reflect back on over two decades of what feels like a continuous conversation that never quite reached its conclusion. Jerry modelled the search engine before the search engine existed; the rule was to always connect, always keep thought fluid and in motion; conclusions are for those who aren’t thinking hard enough. Another retired SFU faculty member liked to tell a story that, while not about Jerry, certainly sums up an aspect of his legacy. When this professor asked a colleague why he didn’t publish more, he gestured at the students flowing past where the two faculty members were taking their coffee, ironically declaring, “there go my publications.”

Jerry would never make such a hubristic comment, whether ironic or not; nonetheless, teaching, students, and the collaborative process of reading and discussion, were at the heart of his methods, and took precedence over the standard markers of academic achievement. Jerry always had time for students, endlessly listened to, encouraged, and inspired them in ways few teachers can claim. He forged life-long friendships with many of these former students.

My last email exchange with Jerry, from about a month ago, was typical. An off-hand question on my part led to Jerry guiding me from the history of the humanities department (all “exiles” from other departments), through the 1942 film Casablancaand actor Peter Lorre, to Brecht (Lorre had acted in Brecht productions in Berlin), to Walter Benjamin (Brecht’s friend and sometimes collaborator), Siegfried Kracauer (another exile and Benjamin acquaintance), the Hitler-Stalin pact and the flight of so many other exiles (Breton, Arendt, Levi-Strauss, etc.) to the U.S., ending with a joke about lacking time for a more fulsome response.

This fall, Vancouver’s Talonbooks will publish Jerry’s Untimely Passages, which gathers 50 years of his writing. The book’s section titles give an overview of his intellectual interests: “Errant Europeans,” “Streets and Borders,” “Exiles, Pedlars, Tricksters, Utopians, and Mercurians.” A self-described “romantic Anti-Capitalist informed by anarchism,” Jerry read between European modernism and the contemporary west coast, in search of the artistic and literary legacies of the autonomous individual trying to survive, like Jerry himself, as a “stowaway” in the heart of institutional structures anything but attuned to the individual’s dreams and desires.

But the thing that was most striking about Jerry—beyond his legendary generosity (but related to this)—the thing I will miss the most—is the way his mind knew no bounds: one idea or reference point always led to another, and kept flowing. Were there world enough and time, the single flowing thread of his thought would never end. It was a carmen perpetuum—an endless song.

*Visit our YouTube channel to view some of Professor Zaslove’s talks for SFU’s Institute for the Humanities and SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement.

Professor Jerry Zaslove is fondly remembered by his SFU colleagues, former students, and friends. If you would like to add a note of condolence, please email englcmns@sfu.ca.

Donations in Jerry's name may be made to the Zaslove Scholarship in Humanities. The interest from this fund supports an academically excellent graduate student in the Department of Humanities.

Fund details at bottom of this page: https://www.sfu.ca/gradstudies/awards-funding/internal-donor-funded/hum.html#zaslove

"Jerry was resolute in taking every opportunity to build meaningful relationships between town and gown. I valued how he created platforms for me to share and discuss my work in community, and for me to meet and learn from the rich array of thoughtful, progressive faculty at SFU. More personally, he encouraged me to tell my own story by reflecting on my thinking and practice in community work – always suggesting new paths of enquiry (which is why the story is as, yet, unfinished – perhaps taking a cue from Jerry himself).

A kind, wonderful person whose knowledge and imagination led me to paths I would never have discovered on my own."

(Michael Clague C.M.

Recipient: Thakore Family Foundation Visiting Scholar Award

Former community member: Institute for the Humanities)

“My condolences to Jerry’s family.

On the institutional history of the department: Jerry was one of a founding contingent from the University of Washington grad school. The others were Mike Steig, Dan Callahan and Steve Black (who survives). All were influenced by Wayne Burns at U Dub, who established the ‘Panzaic principle’: briefly, that Sancho Panza’s devotion to his belly is wiser than his master’s foolish idealism. The pacifist anarchism of Alex Comfort came into the picture too.”

(Paul Delany, SFU English professor emeritus)

"I met Jerry soon after I arrived at SFU in 1972, and began a desultory conversation that picked up in various rooms, in the club, walking round campus, over coffee. He was quick to laugh and quick to serious ideas and such a sympathetic person that he made SFU both richer and more welcoming to many many people."

(Kieran Egan, SFU education professor emeritus)

“I met Jerry when I first arrived at SFU in 1974 and he was so kind and encouraging. We worked on several graduate supervisory and other committees together and he always told me to take on the world. A genuine inter-disciplinarian good for hours and hours of informed debate. I will miss him more than I ever knew and I wish I had told him just how much I appreciated him!”

(Marilyn Gates, SFU anthropology professor emeritus)

Jerry was a brilliant and lovely man. 22 years ago I came back to SFU so I could study with him before he retired, which he of course never really did. Hail and farewell, Jerry. My life is better for your having been a part of it, even amidst mourning you now.

(James Gifford, Fairleigh Dickinson University English professor)

“Jerry was my undergraduate professor and mentor; then an ally, colleague and dear friend. COVID kept us apart over the last 16 months, but we emailed each other and met downtown at GLS where we always had wonderful conversations.  His light will keep shining there.  He will be sorely missed by colleagues and his many friends, and by the dozens and dozens of students he advised and supervised over decades, at GLS, Humanities, and English.

I owe my career at SFU to him.

I will miss him deeply.”

(Tom Grieve, retired SFU English professor)

I took the Cultural Studies course with Jerry in 1998, and we stayed in touch for a few years after I had graduated and gone off to the States for my MA. I teach writing now, and I write for fun too. When I write about teaching and write about writing, I think of Jerry often because it was in his class that my essayist voice took shape. It is the voice that allows me to scrutinize an artefact with an intense academic gaze stemming from a very personal point of curiosity.

Whenever I think of Jerry, I check the pilot light in me to make sure it’s still on. I know now that the fire which drove me to write the way I did was not just about Edvard Munch or Jeff Wall or some great works of art. It was my curiosity about using the essay form to construct and capture personal memory so as to give it validity. Jerry saw that curiosity in me and encouraged it. That fire still burns.   

Goodbye, Jerry. I will write even more thoughtfully to honour that pilot light - to honour you.

(Sue Lee, SFU alumnus)

"I was a young university student back in the '80s, admitted as a mature student. As a 60s scoop survivor, but not aware of my history as much as I know today, Jerry was a great teacher. He inspired me as a writer. He had allowed me to tap into my experiential value as a young student and he really supported my work as a young artist dealing with the aesthetic of performance and criticism of performance, so a great man. I really appreciated his views on my essays I wrote for his classes.

Jerry, see you on the other side."

(Donald Morin, BA)

“Professor Zaslove taught an amazing course on Franz Kafka when I was majoring in English in the late-1990s. I remember the look of astonishment on his face the first day he walked into the packed fifth floor classroom of the AQ. He hadn’t expected such an overwhelmingly positive response to his new course. It turned out that he’d chosen an author whose themes resonated with Gen Xers like myself. As the course went on, Prof. Zaslove demonstrated how passionate and knowledgeable he was about the novels and short stories, even noting when the English translation misconstrued the meaning of the original German, which he also understood. At the end of course, he gave each of us these Team Kafka buttons, apologizing that they were mass-produced. It remains one of my most prized possessions from my time as an SFU student. Thank you, Professor Zaslove.”

(Rebecca Saloustros, SFU English alumnus and staff member)    

Jerry Zaslove: A Man for Tall Reasons.

"'Literacy', 'Nurture', 'Listen', 'Respect', 'Inspire', 'Generosity' are some of the words I think of when I think of Jerry Zaslove. When he led a seminar, it was like a shower of confetti ideas raining down on everyone. He not only synthesized them, but encouraged students to construct their own selves by what they heard. His classes were a wonderful example of the Socratic method in action.

In the early 1980s I took his course, The History of Literary Criticism. One of his assignments was to write about an influential childhood book. Mine was Heinrich Hoffmann’s 1845 Struwwelpeter. Jerry laughed out loud for that was also one of his favourites, ten illustrated stories (like today’s graphic novels) on how children should behave and the consequences of what happens if they don’t: Kaspar starves to death for refusing to eat, a girl burns to death because she plays with matches, and Konrad has his thumbs cut off because he sucks them.

'Psychoanalysis is a topography of the mind', he said as he began the Saturday, March 20, 1993 session on Freud in our GLS course, The Capacity and Limits of Reason. We learned that he was introduced to Freud as a teenager when he found his writings in an Ohio bookstore. He laughed again as we shared a somewhat Freudian poem by Philip Larkin, 'This Be The Verse', the first stanza of which follows:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

As a high school teacher, I appreciated Jerry’s sense of humour for to connect with students, abstract reason by itself doesn’t always cut it. Adding a bit of laughter into the mix helps. Jerry had the ability to harness the etymology of the word 'education' (to draw out, to lead forth) to humour and thus encourage the joy of learning. What more can a teacher do?  

Thank you, Jerry."

(Heinz Senger, SFU alumnus)

"Although me and Jerry grew apart these last years, he was one of the pivotal humans in academia that not only made my time there bearable but saw and respected my mind long before I ever did. I worked with him at the Institute for Humanities for 7 years in the 1990s, working in my beloved East Van community as a bridge between academia and the grassroots, fuelled by Jerry's vision and passions for keeping academia grounded, connected andaccessible to everyone.

He was pivotal in shaping my critical mind while always laughing along with me as he told his endless stories and went off on his many tangents.  

I remember once saying to him with a bit of frustration, 'Jerry, but what's your point?!' and he replied,'My point is there is no point.' And we laughed and laughed.

He will be dearly missed by all that knew him and his legacy will continue through all of us that had the luck of working with or being taught by him.

Rest in Peace and Power, dear Jerry."

(Tammie Tupechka, SFU social geography alumnus)

In 2013 I traveled to Vancouver to film in the Herbert Read Archive in Victoria, and subsequently met Jerry. We recorded an interview about Read's work and as many others have written, the conversation never stopped. After meeting several more times during my stay, I knew I had met someone truly great, a real deep thinker, and completely unique.

Over the years we continued our conversation by email, and Jerry continued to enrich my life and thinking. He was also very funny! It pleases me greatly to think of all the people he must have kept contact with, being such a good communicator as he was. He must have brought so much energy to all his students, friends and family. I will miss him greatly.

(Huw Wahl, filmmaker, photographer, artist)

I encountered Professor Zaslove during the latter 1990s, when he shared that generosity with me at a time when I was trying to figure out how to pursue an interdisciplinary PhD. on religion and modernity. To a enthusiastic twentysomething who had the kernel of an idea, but wasn’t quite sure what he was doing, Professor Zaslove offered abundant time and encouragement, in his office and while introducing me to his SFU colleagues, as well as by driving across the border to meet me for coffee in Bellingham, WA. The fact that I am now a reasonably successful middle-aged academic at UVic (even if I’m still not entirely sure what I’m doing – this is likely evermore the case, which situation I would no doubt further appreciate if I had the opportunity to discuss psychoanalysis with him now) is due in significant measure to the kindness of someone like Jerry Zaslove. Thank you.

(Andrew M. Wender, UVic Professor of Political Science and History, and Religion, Culture and Society Program, Director)

From the mid-1990s when Jerry and I first met, I always looked forward to our delightfully different conversations at local cafes. While I ordered a cappuccino, he would sip his tea and introduce me to another profoundly provocative author and book. After each session, I would read further trying to keep up to my dear comrade and mentor. Together, we took up the banner of the good fight for the poor and oppressed. My time at SFU was very special, thanks to him and our colleagues at the Institute for the Humanities. His wisdom, openness to ideas and generosity were inspirational. My time there was a career and life-altering experience. My trajectory from then on was guided by a special and unique North Star. I will always be grateful for Jerry pointing the way on our journey together.

(Alan Whitehorn, Visiting Professor, JS Woodsworth Chair of Humanities, 1994-1996)

"Jerry and I met physically only twice but have been in long-distance conversation for decades. He was a lovely man, a gentle anarchist, and felt like a brother. The visit he organized for me to Vancouver in 2008 was a joy; I felt immediately at home in the Institute for the Humanities; it breathed his spirit. Long may it live. I miss him sorely."

(Irving Wohlfarth)

"Yes, Jerry played a lot of basketball, and I played a lot of basketball with Jerry back in the day, from about 1990 and for the next two decades or so. He was crafty in the paint and knew how to use the backboard. He also had genuine NBA footwork and never, so far as I know, was ever officially called for travelling. :)  I say this with real respect and appreciation. We had wonderful conversations all the time, even during the games. I can't believe he's gone. In my mind he has always been there and always will be. I'll carry something valuable from him into the continuing game. It resumes this fall post-COVID. Jerry, my man: we shall keep it bouncing in your memory."

(Michael Zeitlin, UBC English professor)