Longtime activist dies at 85

Former KU professor fought for equal rights

Ben Zimmerman lived to the age of 85, but never lost the passion of youth when it came to community activism.

“He was quite amazing,” said Lynne Green, who, with Zimmerman, co-chaired a campaign to amend the city of Lawrence’s discrimination policy. “He had the fire in his belly and the energy of a very young committed activist. He was never an old man.”

Zimmerman, a former associate professor of social welfare at Kansas University and longtime Lawrence resident, died Thursday in Venice, Calif.

His fingerprints are on a long list of organizations and projects designed to bring fairness to the lives of unprotected people, said Ann Weick, dean of social welfare at KU.

“He contributed so much to this community in terms of issues of justice and equality,” Green said. “He was an eloquent advocate for vulnerable groups and was really a leader in our faculty during the time he was there in focusing attention of the community on pressing issues of the day.”

In Lawrence, Zimmerman helped found the Day Care Coalition of Lawrence and Douglas County, Lawrence Alliance, Freedom Coalition, Douglas County AIDS Project, Simply Equal and Lawrence-Topeka P-FLAG.

He was on the boards of the NAACP, Freedom Coalition and League of Women Voters.

Zimmerman was active in social welfare activities in Syracuse, N.Y., before joining the KU faculty in 1972.

It was Zimmerman’s role in the mid-1990s campaign to add the words “sexual orientation” to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance that sticks in the memories of many people in Lawrence. He was co-chair with Green of Simply Equal, a coalition of more than 1,000 people that pressed for the change.

Ben Zimmerman

In 1995 the City Commission agreed, making Lawrence the first city in Kansas to protect homosexuals from discrimination in housing, employment or public accommodations.

At that time, Zimmerman proclaimed: “Lawrence will not tolerate bigotry.”

Mike Silverman, chair of the Freedom Coalition, said Zimmerman was a terrific leader.

“He was the public face of the Freedom Coalition for a good deal of time,” Silverman said.

More recently, Zimmerman worked to help convince the Lawrence school board to add “gender identity” to a list of classes for which district employees have protection from discrimination.