Donald Zillman, former University of Maine at Presque Isle president and namesake of the University of Maine art museum in Bangor, died Thursday in Santa Fe, New Mexico, according to Presque Isle campus officials.
He was 79 years old.
Zillman had a long history of contributions to the University of Maine System, also serving the campuses in Orono and Fort Kent, and his community.
In Presque Isle, he and his wife, Linda, established a research professorship in 2013 and gave the first money to start the Zillman Family Greenhouse for the agricultural science program. But what local leaders remember most is how much he cared about people.
“He was the embodiment of a servant leader. I’ve never had this many people reach out at the loss of somebody,” said Ray Rice, University of Maine at Presque Isle president. “They all say they’ve never known anybody that was as generous as Don Zillman was.”
Zillman led the campus from 2006 to 2012, coming in at a challenging time, Rice said.
Rice was then president of the faculty union, and there were difficult dynamics between instructors and administrators, he said. Zillman had a calming way of making everyone feel comfortable and on equal footing, and spent a lot of time in one-on-one conversations with people, pledging his support to ensure the stability and growth of the university.
He helped bring in teaching staff who were keen about research, but also about working with students. His leadership led to a renaissance of scholarship and research, Rice said.
Though he is in awe of all the scholarly work and writing Zillman did, it is the day-to-day moments Rice will miss most.
“I remember him walking Matisse, the first German shorthair [dog] they had,” Rice said. “I’d be riding my bike super early in the morning, and he’d be walking his dog super early. He was just always somebody that was around on campus.”
Zillman published 80 books and articles, was a Rotarian for decades and served on boards for the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, Leaders Encouraging Aroostook Development and United Way of Aroostook.
An avid runner, he completed more than 1,000 road races, according to Presque Isle campus officials.
Zillman was dean of the University of Maine School of Law from 1991 to 1998, interim provost and academic vice president at the University of Maine from 1999 to 2000, and interim president of the University of Maine at Fort Kent from 2001 to 2002.
He was Edward S. Godfrey Professor of Law at Maine Law from 1990 until his retirement in 2019, campus officials said in a statement.
He and his wife gave $1.3 million in 2020 to expand the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor, and the facility was named the Zillman Art Museum in their honor. In 2022, the Zillmans delivered the Presque Isle university’s commencement address and received honorary degrees.
Just after Zillman left Presque Isle, he and his wife created the Donald and Linda Zillman Family Professorship to be awarded every two years to help a Presque Isle faculty member with research and career development.
Chunzeng Wang, professor of earth and environmental studies, was the first recipient in 2013. He found the loss of his colleague and benefactor difficult to believe.
“He influenced me so much, and I’m sure other faculty members and members of the community,” Wang said. “He really cared so much.”
Zillman was a scholar and published numerous books and articles, and wanted the faculty and students to be involved in scholarship, as well, Wang said.
Wang started his geological mapping work with a global positioning system device and a printer. Though the budget didn’t include money for the GPS, Zillman directed the university to buy it, Wang said.
The GIS lab opened in 2009, and Wang still remembers Zillman’s wide smile on that day.
Shortly before he died, Zillman and his wife gave $32,000 to the GIS lab.
“In his last email to me, he said he was happy he could help faculty to help UMPI be more visible to the rest of the world,” Wang said. “If faculty do well, so does the university, and if the university does well, it’s good for the community.”
Both Wang and Rice commended Zillman’s community involvement, much of which happened through his work with Rotary.
Sharon Campbell, past president of the Presque Isle Rotary Club, led the organization when Zillman joined.
“At Rotary, we always try to encourage people to come in and embrace the concept of Rotary: Is it true, is it fair to all concerned, does it build goodwill and better friendships and does it benefit all,” she said. “He came to us living those pillars. It wasn’t Rotary; it was Don.”
Zillman had an infectious smile and projected genuine care for people, which is what Rotary strives for, Campbell said. He was a person to whom people immediately gravitated, and he found joy in simple things as well as the extraordinary.
Though he was an exceptional writer and speaker, Campbell said she has never laughed out loud so much as in one of Zillman’s Rotary speeches. His sense of humor and ability to tell a story really came through, she said.
Even after he left Presque Isle, Zillman kept in touch with Rotary and people in the area, she said.
“It seemed like he left a little piece of himself here in Maine and just remained connected,” Campbell said. “I’m very sad to learn that he’s gone. He was just one of those people that you were thankful you knew on this Earth.