Bob Zimmer, former President of the University of Chicago, died yesterday of brain cancer at the young age of 75. He was stricken several years ago, but lived longer than anyone expected, and for that I’m glad. I’m writing this not to ape all the encomiums that will be printed in the next few days, but to show a side of the man that only I knew—until Mary Schmich wrote about it in the Chicago Tribune.
I met Bob in person only once (we were both inducted into the AAAS at the same time, and he introduced himself to me at the associated lunch in Cambridge, MA.). At that one meeting, I found him affable, easy to talk to, and not the least arrogant. As President and then as Chancellor, Bob distinguished himself not only in the REAL job of a President—raising money, which he was very good at—but, more important, in defending the Chicago Principles, including free speech and our policy of institutional neutrality embodied in the Kalven Report. That’s why, back in 2017, Bret Stephens (an alum who got his undergrad degree here in philosophy) wrote a NYT column calling Bob “America’s Best University President.” (A NYT obituary hasn’t yet appeared, but I’ll link to it here when it does.)
Small-fish professors like me have almost no contact with University presidents; when they do the prof is either in trouble or wants something. My second contact with Bob involved the latter: I wanted to feed the ducks. As the covid pandemic started to grip America, we were told that the campus would be closed except for “essential research workers”, but I wasn’t one since I’d retired a while before that. Since I was busy feeding up Honey for her nesting season, I was upset that they might prevent me from going to Botany Pond. After fretting over it one evening, I sat in front of my laptop and banged out an email to Bob and Provost Ka Lee (March 19, 2020):
Dear President Zimmer and Provost Lee,
I am terribly sorry to bother you with a trivial request when I know that both of you have huge issues on your minds, trying to balance the mission of our University with the need to protect our community and its environs from contagion. But in light of the possibility that the University may close almost completely, with non-essential people barred from campus, I wanted to request a small favor should that happen. I will be brief.
For the past three years I’ve taken it upon myself to feed the breeding mallards at Botany Pond during spring and summer, and have been inordinately successful at bringing the young to fledging (in the last few years my associates and I have fledged 39 ducklings with only one loss, a mortality rate of <3% compared to over 50% before I took over). I attribute this to constant care and good food (duck chow, corn, and mealworms), and have worked with Facilities to ensure that pond remains “duck worthy” (they have constructed a duckling ramp and raise and lower the water level for me so the young can be safe).
The presence of healthy ducks and ducklings has been a big draw for the community, with frequent visits from schoolchildren and others who come to watch them. Some of the females who migrate south return every year (I recognize them), and they have just returned and will soon begin building nests on the ledges of Erman.
What I would like to ask is whether, if the campus closes and I am not considered an essential research worker, I would still be allowed to visit the pond at least twice a day to feed the ducks. This is a solitary activity and nobody helps me, nor would I stand near anybody else. I would not work inside my building (I have an office in Zoology), but merely tend the ducks outside for a brief period. As far as I know from the CDC, there is no danger in spreading the coronavirus if you’re alone outside. (I am healthy and have experienced no symptoms.) I would simply feed the animals, which takes about ten minutes, and then leave campus.
I am asking your permission because our department is not the appropriate chain of command given that my request is not connected with research. But it is connected with animals—animals that have chosen to live and breed on our campus. There is an old Jewish saying that goes “If you have saved one life it is as if you saved the world.” Some of my colleagues say, “Well, they’re just ducks,” but their lives are important to themselves, to me, and, I think, to our University community.
I hope you’ll find yourself able to grant me this small favor if the campus is shuttered. I enclose two photos of our successes from the last year.
Thank you for your attention during these distressing times.
Department of Ecology and Evolution
This could be considered presumptuous, and also a burden on the President at a difficult time, so I didn’t expect an answer. But early the next morning I got this response:
Ka Yee and I are in full agreement that you should be able to do this. And I fully sympathize with the view that they are not “just ducks”. Please take care of them, “our ducks”, as you have been. We are appreciative of this.
Stay well, and with best wishes,
Now I ask you: who but an empathic and humane man would even deal with an issue like this? Bob even wrote the campus police telling them not to remove me were they to find me taking care of the ducks.
Ten days later, Mary Schmich, the Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, found out about Honey and me from her former colleague who had moved to the University. Schmich then wrote the first of three columns about a professor and his duck, “The pandemic, a professor, and a duck named Honey: a story of life in a time of death.” (Her other two are here and here.) They were all written as feel-good stories: tales about how duck life goes on even as people fall ill. As always, Mary wrote a fantastic piece (inquire if you can’t see it) and followed it up with two columns that were equally good.
The first one appealed to the University administration, for it told people about the pond and the ducks, and the solace they gave everyone, and it was good publicity for the school. They put up a webcam at Botany Pond, and Facilities gave me lots of help making the pond duck-friendly, adding fences, duck ramps, and so on. They even built a trampoline to cushion Honey’s jumping ducklings when she’d nested right over a cement porch! When I needed help, Bob was always there for me. Here are a few of the notes from his side (I would send him photos to keep him up to date.)
Jerry, Thanks for your report on the ducks which was certainly welcome and encouraging. And thanks for the wonderful photos. Thanks also for the offer to show me around. I may wait until my granddaughter is back in town before taking you up on it. Stay well.
With very best wishes and appreciation,
Here’s another written after I asked him to help me get fencing in one place to keep the ducklings safe from human intrusion. Since we were both Jewish, I told Bob that I gave one drake a Jewish name: Shmuley. (I also told him how a human mother tried to release two whopping flightless domestic ducks into the pond, which I prevented just in time):
Jerry, Thanks so much for keeping me up to date. If you need help to get fencing in place, please let me know. And Shmuley – fantastic. “Gotta have duck with Jewish name” – love it. Maybe you are on your way to having a duck minyan. That was a somewhat sad story about the domiestic ducks and the kids worried about their pets. But it sounds as if it ended ok…..
Thanks again Jerry. I hope you are doing well.
With best wishes and appreciation, Bob
Every six months or so I’d send him an update, often with photos. Here’s one from July, 2021:
I’m just sending an update as the duck season at Botany Pond winds down. It’s been a good year: we had four broods with a total of 27 ducklings that have fledged or are about to fledge, and it’s been very peaceful. Lots of people have come to the pond to find respite by watching the birds (I met a woman the other day whose husband was having a transplant in the hospital, and she comes by every day to chill out by watching the waterfowl), and the Labbies have some of their drawing classes here.
Anyway, they plan to dredge the pond this fall, and I hope they do a good job, as they’ll have to preserve the turtles and fish who live there too. As you transition to Chancellor, I hope you retain some of your “duck powers”!
At any rate, all is well, and I enclose some photos of this year’s crop; I hope they aren’t too large to get through.
And the response (this is only one of many exchanges), from July 20, 2021:
Jerry, thanks so much for the update and the wonderful photos (which came through very well.) It is nice to hear that those who are under great stress, particularly medical stress, find respite at the pond. As for dredging the pond, I am sure this needs to be done carefully, and I will make sure that they have someone who knows how to do this in a careful and protective way. And I will still be here for the ducks (and more!) Thanks again for the wonderful work taking care of our ducks. It is important and I greatly value it.
I hope you are well and doing well more generally.
With best wishes and appreciation,
From the winter of that year, after I made a duck Christmas card for him:
Jerry, thanks very much for the lovely card. And thank YOU for all you are doing for the beautiful ducks and ducklings and helping them all flourish. I walk by Botany Pond occasionally (without our dogs) and it is great to see them all and see how they are doing. Keep up the great work which is of value to us all. I wish you and family all the best for a safe, healthy, happy, rewarding, productive, and gratifying new year.
With warm and best wishes, Bob
Now this isn’t a huge deal in the scheme of things or in the running of our University, but I have to say that a lot of the help I got with the ducks was because of Bob. He always answered my emails within a couple of days, and I felt secure knowing that the President considered the Botany Pond mallards as “our ducks”. I am sure that his help, and that of Facilities, saved the lives of many ducklings.
Then Bob had a seizure, and was diagnosed with brain cancer. I kept sending him emails with photos until about a year ago, but the answers stopped coming. Of course I understood, but I was sad. I had even saved one of Honey’s molted speculum feathers to give him, but I never got the chance. And now he’s gone.
I wanted to put this on the record because it’s a side of Bob that won’t be lauded in his obituaries but shows his humanity.
I could also describe how several of us worked with him to ensure that the provisions of the Kalven Report on institutional neutrality were maintained, but that story appears on the University website and is a more conventional tale of academia. Further, Bob’s work on free speech (which continued after he resigned as President and became Chancellor) will also be described widely, so I needn’t repeat it.
We have a new President now, but I don’t know him, and thus dare not ask him about the ducks. But rarely will you find a college president like Bob, who had all the power to effect change but remained concerned about the well-being of a few campus mallards.
RIP Bob; I will miss you, and so will the ducks.