Donald Zeigler knew what he wanted to do with his life from an early age.
“He wanted to be an academic geographer,” said Jonathan Leib, whom Zeigler recruited to Old Dominion University in 2008. “In fact, while in high school he joined the American Association of Geographers, the major professional organization for geographers.”
Zeigler, who died March 4 after a battle with cancer, spent his entire professional academic career at ODU and became “an icon among human-cultural geographers” according to Tom Allen, one of his former students and now an ODU geography professor. Zeigler was 71.
Zeigler came to ODU in 1980 after earning his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. He was a professor in the Department of Political Science and Geography until he retired in 2016. He served as department chair from 1990 to ’94.
“He was one of the kindest, most selfless people I’ve ever met,” Leib said. “And one of the smartest. Academics can sometimes have a reputation for ego. But Don was the opposite. Don had no ego, was always willing to help whether you were an undergraduate student, graduate student, faculty member, geography teacher or anybody who’s interested in geography.”
“Don was a fine, kind, caring person, who worked for the good of everyone – colleagues, faculty, students and the broader world,” added Chris Drake, professor of geography emerita. “He encouraged others to grow academically as well as personally.”
“He was one of the kindest, most selfless people I’ve ever met. And one of the smartest."
- Jonathan Leib
Zeigler was known for his passion for geography education and travel.
Among the major honors he earned were a State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) Outstanding Faculty Award in 2006 and the inaugural American Association of Geographers Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Geography Teaching in 2016.
When he won the SCHEV award, Drake told The Virginian-Pilot about an assignment that required his students to meet him off campus. No address was given; they only had the latitude and longitude.
"He's always thinking of new, creative ways to understand issues and express himself," Drake said at the time.
Zeigler was a founding member of the Virginia Geographic Alliance, an organization for K-12 teachers. He served as president of the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE) and Gamma Theta Upsilon, the international geography student honor society. In the late 1990s he helped create the Advanced Placement Human Geography program, which is offered in more than 3,500 high schools. He organized countless workshops, institutes and travel seminars for high school teachers.
“Don’s contribution to geography and geography education is immense,” Barbara S. Hildebrant, who worked at Educational Testing Services from 1999 to 2019 and was the person most responsible for the launch of AP Human Geography, wrote in a memorial post. “Working with Don through 20 years for APHG was an opportunity that I treasure. His support was unfailing – and his sense of humor carried the day many times.”
Neil Conner was a teacher at Bayside High School when he met Zeigler in the early 2000s.
“He led a professional development course that I now credit for convincing me to attend grad school to become a professor,” Conner, a faculty member at California State University, Fresno, wrote in a memorial post. “I still use a lot of his materials in my own courses, including with my social science student-teachers. So, Don's legacy will live on here in the Central Valley of California.”
Allen recalled taking his “Geography of the City” class as an undergraduate.
“He had one lecture on a seminal theoretical concept in geography known as Central Place Theory that I vividly recall,” Allen said. “This relates to the pattern and hierarchy of urban settlements and services over space, and he walked us through examples from Ohio and the Shenandoah Valley. It opened my eyes to the application of spatial statistics, Geographic Information Systems and cartography that are hallmarks of our current geography program.”
His extensive worldwide travel “would give Rick Steves, the renowned American travel writer and TV host of ‘Rick Steves’ Europe,’ a run for his money,” Allen noted.
“But it wasn’t just travel for its own sake,” Leib added. “It was travel to educate others.”
Toward that end, Zeigler began blogging in 2010. His posts were filled with his photos and insights gleaned from commonplace sights – signs, mailboxes, cemeteries, landscapes, small-town downtowns, etc.
Leib recalled a trip when Zeigler suddenly stopped the car and got out to take a picture.
“I joked with him, and I’m like, ‘Don, you need a bumper sticker that says ‘Geographer on Board. This car stops for no apparent reason,’” Leib said. “That was Don. He would see detail in things on the landscape like no one I’ve ever met.”
Allen remembered Zeigler telling him about a trip to Kazakhstan.
“He showed me a flag he brought back, beaming with excitement and interpreting the symbolism,” Allen said. “The flag shows a sun and its rays shaped as grain, and an eagle on a field of blue. In some sense, this reflects Don to me ... a zest for life and plenitude and never-ending horizons.”
Even after he was diagnosed with cancer and was advised not to travel internationally, Zeigler set a new goal of visiting every U.S. state capital. “There was no stopping him,” Leib said.
Zeigler is survived by his wife of 49 years, Deborah; his brother-in-law Donald Emminger; his son, Robert (Hope) Zeigler; his daughter Megan (Jonathan) Bidanset; and grandchildren Abigail Zeigler, Lucas Zeigler, Heidi Bidanset, Alexander Bidanset, Lorelei Bidanset and Theodore Bidanset. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. May 6 at Heritage United Methodist Church in Virginia Beach.
He will also be remembered in November, when ODU hosts the annual meeting of the Southeast Division of the American Association of Geographers.
“It will comprise the sense of place, history and urban geography of Norfolk that he instilled in me,” Allen said.
You can read Zeigler’s online obituary here.