When Vivian Folkenflik was a professor and lecturer at UC Irvine, she walked into classrooms with pieces of multicolored chalk. She believed that the various hues on the chalkboard would help engage her undergraduate students in complicated ideas.
“If you have multicolored chalk, you could teach students anything,” John H. Smith, emeritus professor at UC Irvine, recalled her often saying, half in jest.
For more than 30 years, Folkenflik taught thousands of UC Irvine students a core humanities course that weaved together history, literature and philosophy. She also mentored hundreds more graduate students, lecturers and early-career professors.
Folkenflik’s life ended suddenly on Oct. 28. She was struck by a pickup truck while she was crossing a street in Montclair, N.J., according to her son, David Folkenflik. She was 83. While confirming his mother’s sudden, tragic death, he spoke of her accomplishments and the legacy she left in academia.
“She played a truly important role in the growth of the humanities at the campus, and she did it not just through the buildings and the institutions, but the people,” said her son, National Public Radio’s media correspondent. “So many generations of cohorts of undergraduates and graduate students and aspiring professors, and even the full faculty members, were influenced by her insights, coaching and encouragement.
“Universities can seem like impersonal places at times, but it’s people like Vivian who make them a breathing organism with a beating heart,” he added.
Vivian Folkenflik was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1940 to a cardiologist and a school librarian who instilled in her a love of museums, music, literature, history, travel and Jackie Robinson.
After graduating from high school at 16, she attended Radcliffe College in Massachusetts before earning her master’s degree at Cornell University, concentrating on French literature.
That’s where she met Robert Folkenflik, whom she would marry two years later. They had two children and, in 1975, moved to California, where they made Laguna Beach their home for 45 years.
In the 1980s, Folkenflik began teaching UC Irvine’s humanities’ core course to undergraduate students. Smith, who was director of the course for some time, said that — in addition to the impact she had on students — Folkenflik helped other instructors who were struggling to teach the complicated curriculum.
“Vivian was dedicated, absolutely dedicated, to teaching critical thinking,” Smith said.
But her relationship to her students and the humanities took on a new meaning following the death of her daughter. Nora, 28, was riding her bike in Seattle one night in 1995 when she was struck and killed by a drunk driver, Smith said.
“She used the material and her students in many ways to get through it … and she showed students that this was not just stuff that they were learning for an exam, but that the humanities offered us the kind of materials that we could use to get us through the difficulties in life,” Smith recalled. For Folkenflik, Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” helped her navigate the profound loss.
When she wasn’t teaching, Folkenflik and her husband loved to travel, watch films, go to concerts, and walk along Reef Point Beach. “But she really loved, loved intellectual pursuits,” said her son, David. “She had a ferocious intellect … and she liked to find ways to connect with people. … To be in a conversation with Vivian is almost to invariably come away amused, made to think, and also affirmed in oneself, and she certainly sought to do that.”
She retired in 2012 but continued to substitute teach. Following her husband’s death in 2019 after a battle with lymphoma, she moved to New Jersey, where she was closer to family. She passed the time at her grandchildren’s soccer games, dance recitals and drama performances. She wrote poetry and studied the Talmud.
Folkenflik is survived by son David; daughter-in-law Jesse; sister Judith; and grandchildren Viola, Zella and Eliza.