The University Record, May 7, 2001

After 53 years of teaching at U-M, historian Sidney Fine says goodbye

By Lesley Harding
News and Information Services

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Sidney Fine has repeated these famous words by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) dozens of times in his second-semester American history class. That’s because FDR is one of his passions as he traces America’s past from 1933 to today. At age 80, Fine offers a unique perspective on the recent history of our nation because he’s lived through so much of it.

After more than a half-century of teaching, Fine held his last lecture April 16. He is credited with having the longest active teaching career at the University and for leaving a lasting impression on his students.

“His career proves that it’s possible to be both a great scholar and a great teacher,” says former Ph.D. student James Tobin. “There’s no question that he’s one of the major American historians of his generation. But when you saw the lines of undergraduates outside his office every week, and when you saw the huge enrollments in his survey courses, you knew he was reaching his students.”

After serving as a Japanese language officer in the Navy 1942–46, Fine received his Ph.D. from the University in 1948. That same fall, the U-M offered him a teaching position.

“You don’t count on starting your career at one of the best universities in the country,” Fine says.

“Normally, you work your way there. But I never lost my admiration for Ann Arbor or the University. I’ve been fortunate to stay at the University for my entire career.”

Nor did he ever lose the love of teaching. Recognized as an outstanding educator and historian, Fine says he is proud of winning the University’s Henry Russel Lectureship and the Golden Apple Award. Students choose the Golden Apple winner for excellence in teaching, and faculty select the Russel winner for national distinction in research and publication. It is the highest faculty honor. Fine is the first professor to receive both of these awards.

“He has set a standard of dedication and of excellence that has brought accolades to the University and great honor upon himself,” says state Sen. John Schwarz, a former student. “Sidney Fine is, and will always be, a legend at the University of Michigan.”

Regardless of the size of his class or the number of courses he was teaching, Fine tried to have a personal relationship with each of his students. He wanted them to see him as a human being at the front of the class, not an actor. His door was always open, and students were often heard bending his ear.

Fine says that as the years passed, his lectures became a bigger challenge. His first-semester class covers American history from the late 19th century to 1932. The second-semester class covers the history of the nation 1933–present. Every year, he’s had to gather another year’s worth of information, which has meant revising his lectures and, he jokes, “talking a little faster” to cover more recent developments.

Shirley Neuman, LS&A dean, says, “Prof. Fine has had a distinguished career of scholarship and teaching at the University of Michigan. I often meet alumni who speak very warmly of having taken his courses in history and who testify to all they learned under his tutelage.”

Retirement won’t be a life of leisure for Fine. He’s about to publish his 12th book, The Mark of a Civilized Society. It looks at aging with a focus on Michigan’s elderly. He’ll also continue his research and deliver an occasional lecture.

Fine will be remembered for his many accomplishments that shone such a positive light on the University. He has received three honorary degrees, was named the state’s Professor of the Year in 1986 by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, was named an International Man of the Year for 2000–01 by the International Biographical Centre of Cambridge, England, and eight of his books have won awards.

“I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to teach at such a fine university and have such an incredible teaching career,” Fine says.