Born for His Job

Lloyd Ultan

By Nagiba Elfatrany

Bronx Staff Writer

It would not be a stretch to say that Lloyd Ultan was born to be a historian, considering that by the time he entered junior high school, his classmates were already calling him “professor” –- because of his love and knowledge of history.

“I always loved history as a toddler,” says Ultan, who was born in the Bronx in 1938. “I wanted to know what happened before I was born.” By the time he was named the official Bronx Historian by former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer in 1996 – an honorary, non-paid position –  Ultan felt it was a job for which he had been preparing all his life.

“I remember seeing Franklin Roosevelt on the Grand Concourse at the age of two,” says Ultan. “He was sitting in the back seat of a limousine and I  said President Roosevelt! Here! I also saw John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman on the Grand Concourse.”

At one point in high school, during Ultan’s European history class, the teacher said that Marco Polo came from Genoa. Ultan corrected the  instructor and mentioned that Polo was from Venice. He ended up helping the instructor teach the class.

In 1955, when Lehman College was called Hunter, Ultan enrolled as a history major. His freshman year English professor was Leonard Leif, for whom the Lehman library was dedicated. Ultan was there for the groundbreaking ceremony of the Leonard Leif Library, at a time when George Shuster was the college president. Shuster later became the namesake of another Lehman building – Shuster Hall.

Ultan has witnessed so many other Bronx historical events that he now teaches a Bronx History course at Lehman College.

He received a bachelor of arts from Hunter College (now Lehman) in 1959, and went on to his first teaching job as a permanent substitute instructor at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx.

Since 1964, Ultan has been a history professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Hackensack, N.J.

It was after finishing his graduate studies at Columbia University that Ultan realized that there was much more to learn about the Bronx. He started to attend free lectures at the Bronx Historical Society, where he was inspired by the Society’s founder, Theodore Kazimiroff.

Kazimiroff was a dentist by profession but he lead people on walking tours and fought to preserve the history and ecological lands of the Bronx. He died in 1980 and Ultan has followed in his footsteps.

Ultan has written three books and authored more than 800 newspaper, magazine, encyclopedia articles and journals. As the Bronx Historian, he has promoted the borough through walking tours, radio interviews and global phone calls for more than a decade.

He is the longest running official historian in New York City, and he can’t stop gabbing about the borough and its people.

“It has all the advantages of a suburb and at the same time all the advantages of a city,” says Ultan. “One of the most wonderful things about the Bronx is the people, and most people don’t know that.”

What Lloyd Ultan reveals to tourists and journals around the world has a powerful impact on preserving the reputation of the Bronx as an enduring borough. And is knowledge of the Bronx’s contributions to America is impressive.

“The Bronx is one of the principal framers of the Constitution,” says Ultan. “The Iron dome in Washington D.C. was made in the Bronx. The Abraham Lincoln statue was chiseled by Bronxites. The history of the Bronx is the history of the nation in microcosm.”

For his research, Ultan relies on primary sources such as letters, documents and newspapers that were written in the specific era he is observing.

“Most historians copy from each other,” says Ultan. “I avoid that by going to the original sources.”

Ultan’s love for the Bronx and admiration of Bronxites is written all over him. His body language shows his pride in serving the official Bronx Borough Historian.

“This is one of the rare instances where the job found the person,” says Ultan. “I was made for this job.”

Originally published on Fall 2007

Page designed by Dalila Molina

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