Robert Folkenflik — a professor emeritus of English at UC Irvine and longtime Laguna Beach resident — died Saturday following a battle with lymphoma. He was 80 years old.
A New Jersey native, Folkenflik moved to California to join the UCI faculty as an English professor in 1975 — just 10 years after the nascent university opened its doors. He spent the last 44 years of his life in his home in Laguna’s Woods Cove neighborhood.
As both his career and the university matured, Folkenflik helped hire younger faculty members, shape the curriculum and define UCI’s burgeoning graduate program. After the death of his 28-year-old daughter, Nora, in a 1995 biking accident, the Folkenfliks set up a memorial fund at UCI to sponsor scholarships and lecture series in her memory.
“The university was his life,” said Julia Reinhard Lupton, a colleague and close friend. “That was his main source of intellectual and social community.”
The son of a defense attorney and a cosmetics specialist, Folkenflik paid his way through college with odd jobs after his father died when he was 19. Folkenflik studied at Rutgers University and the University of Minnesota before earning his doctorate at Cornell University, where he met his wife, Vivian, who also taught at UCI.
Folkenflik specialized in 18th- century British literature, with particular focus on writer Samuel Johnson, satirist Jonathan Swift and Scottish author Tobias Smollett. Like his book-lined office at the university, the Folkenflik family home featured a customized library, complete with several first editions.
“It was an intellectually curious and inquisitive home that they forged here,” said his son, David Folkenflik. “It was a home [where] you were expected you would read, expected you would be interested in public life, expected that you’d be interested in things that didn’t just have to do with yourself. He expected a life of passion.”
The professor’s verve for a passionate, meaningful life extended to his university community, too. At meetings for the several committees he served on before and after his retirement in 2006, Lupton said “he always had an opinion, an idea, a vision.”
Stacy Van Beek, an English teacher at The Masters School in New York, said that while she never studied directly with Robert Folkenflik, he made an “outsized impact” on her career.
The professor invested in her early work, encouraging her to apply for a fellowship and then checking in with her regularly after she moved abroad. If she ever won the lottery, Van Beek said, she would endow a fellowship at UCI in his name.
“His encouragement ... helped me to remember that the work I was doing was worthy and interesting, worth completing,” Van Beek wrote in an email. “Bob was that way. His interest was true. He remained curious always. He cared for people. He was the definition of generous.”
Michele Navakas, one of his former graduate students, remembered him as a pure intellectual with “a real heart” for making connections with people and ideas.
“He had a real love and enthusiasm for building this academic network and world of people who could interact and foster knowledge,” Navakas said.
Lupton called him “Mr. Job Placement.”
Robert Folkenflik earned a reputation for being fanatical about helping students find postgraduate work in the competitive world of academia. Even after he retired, he continued what Lupton called his “vocation.”
“His work directly and indirectly enriched this part of Orange County, which has developed and grown and changed in so many ways since we first came in 1975, to its enormous credit,” said his wife, Vivian Folkenflik. “We’re proud of that.”
Even after retiring, Folkenflik fulfilled his professor emeritus title by pursuing passion projects, giving talks, advising campus committees and penning essays.In a 2011 column for the Los Angeles Times, Folkenflik quipped about the pervasion of “Anonymous” as a “ubiquitous author.”
“At 80, he could outwit all of us in terms of ... his recall for dates, facts, quotations, politics,” said Lupton, who regularly hosted the Folkenfliks for the holidays. “He was sharp as a whip.”
Robert Folkenflik spent his free time traveling, visiting friends or meandering through Heisler Park with his wife. Many evenings found him at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts or South Coast Repertory theater, taking in an opera or a classical music concert.
Until recently, he traveled down to the Woods Cove beach for a daily swim while the weather was warm — usually after a morning call to the lifeguard tower to inquire about the day’s surf and swap jokes. He was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma in June.
David Folkenflik, who works as a media correspondent for NPR News, said his father “was like the mayor down there,” greeting other beach regulars and chatting with passersby. Sometimes, his father would bring back an exquisite shell to show his family and he always came home feeling “invigorated.”
“He lived the life he wanted to lead,” David Folkenflik said. “I’m proud of the guy, what do you do? It’s funny to be proud of your dad, but I am. … He’s a mensch.”