Legendary professor Sidney Fine passes away at the age of 88

BY DIYA WADHWA
For the Daily
Published April 6, 2009

Sidney Fine, a former history professor at the University remembered most for his sense of humor and wit, died last Tuesday at the age of 88.

(File Photo/Daily)

Fine passed away at the Heartland Healthcare Center in Ann Arbor. He is survived by his wife of 66 years, Jean, as well as his two daughters, Gail Fine and Deborah Schmidt, and two grandchildren.

A lion of academia, Fine taught more than 29,000 students, according to a count he discussed regularly, including three generations of the same families during his 53-year career.

“At 88, there are relatively few people around who remember him but he was a giant, not just academically and intellectually … but as one of the greatest teachers in the history of the University,” University of Michigan Hillel Executive Director Michael Brooks wrote in an e-mail to the Daily last night. Brooks was a close friend of Fine’s and attended his funeral.

Even with the number of students that Fine taught throughout his career, he stressed the importance of keeping up with all of his students. In an Apr. 4, 2001 article in The Michigan Daily, Fine expressed his commitment to every student.

"They know that I enjoy what I’m doing," he told the Daily at the time. "I like my students to see me as a human being, not just a person talking to them in a classroom."

The faces of students’ parents were commonly sprinkled throughout the lecture halls of Sidney Fine classes, Brooks wrote in the e-mail.

“Sidney once told me about a father who came up to him after one of his lectures – students frequently brought their parents to his classes – to personally thank him for so significantly enriching the quality of the family’s dinner conversations,” Brooks wrote.

Laurence Deitch, a University regent who attended two classes with Fine as an undergraduate in the 1960s, said Fine had a gift for enlightening his students.

“He was an unbelievably fascinating and compelling lecturer,” Deitch said. “He just really made American government, culture and political institutions come alive. He was really devoted to his students and the University. Not only was he a great teacher, but a scholar.”

His career at the University began unexceptionally in 1948 when he hired to teach as an “Instructor in History.”

But when he retired in 2001, Fine had written 39 articles and published 12 books during his career. According to the 2001 Daily article, he held the record for the longest active teaching career of any professor in the history of the University.

Fine was always dedicated to the idea of maintaining a long career. The Michigan legislature abolished a law that required teachers in Michigan to retire at the age of 70 in response to a proposal by one of Fine’s former students, who was also a member of the state legislature. Fine, who was 70 at the time, added his own signature to the bill and continued to teach at the University for another 10 years after the law was abolished.

Fine was born in Cleveland, Ohio on Oct. 11, 1920. He graduated from Western Reserve University as class valedictorian in 1942 and went on to obtain his master’s degree from the University of Michigan. He was drafted to fight in World War II during his time at the University, but applied for deferment in order to finish his degree.

Throughout his career at the University, Fine received many awards for teaching. He was the third recipient of the Golden Apple Award, which Students Honoring Outstanding University Teaching awarded him in 1993.

“He is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever heard speak,” LSA sophomore Maria Simon told the Daily in 2001. “You have to remind yourself to take notes (in his class), because you often want to just sit and listen to him.”

In addition to his career in teaching, Fine was president of the Labor Historians, served as history department chairman, and was a member of the National Archives Advisory Council. He was also a member of the American Historical Association and the University Musical Society.

Jim Weindorf one of Fine's former students said every lecture of Fine's was "a performance."

"Of all my classes that I took, that's the one that I wouldn't miss," he said. "I wanted to be in the front seat and I wanted to take copious notes."

Weindorf added that he still remembers much of what he learned in Fine's class.

"Twenty years later, I think about him all the time and how he commanded people's attention,” he said. “And you just waited to hear what he had to say about something as he was going through history because he could kind of sort it out for you.”

Brooks said Fine was the kind of great teacher “who makes his or her subject come alive,” and that was what made his career so exceptional.

“There probably aren’t a lot of people who can look back on a life as long and rich as his and say that their only regret is that they never learned how to drive,” Brooks wrote in the e-mail.

— Daily News Editors Jillian Berman and Trevor Calero contributed to this report.