Neil Wolfman, a chemistry professor at Boston College, died on Wednesday, according to a family-run blog that provided updates on Wolfman’s health to family, friends, and former students. He was 66. Wolfman went on medical leave from BC at the beginning of the 2019 spring semester after being diagnosed with cancer, returning briefly in the beginning of the fall.
“Professor Wolfman was an incredible man,” said Tiffany Brooks, MCAS ’21, in a written tribute to Wolfman. “He always made sure to check in with me and meet with me, even after my time in his class was over. I will forever be grateful for his advice.”
Wolfman, who taught general chemistry, instructed many students throughout his years at BC, particularly those in the chemistry department or on the pre-med track.
“When I was applying to medical schools, Professor Wolfman gave me his home and cell number saying that he had to be the third phone call when I got accepted after calling my mom and dad,” said Kanwal Ojha, BC ’19, in a written tribute. “The minute I gave him that phone call, he dropped what he was doing in his busy schedule to find me on campus. After he found me and gave me a big hug, I looked up at him and realized that he had tears in his eyes.
“To think that I am just one out of the hundreds of students who Professor Wolfman was so invested in speaks volumes of the lives that he touched and the immense legacy that he has left.”
The son of Holocaust survivors, Wolfman was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and grew up in the Bronx. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, he attended New York University as an undergraduate before moving on to Cornell University for his master’s degree and a doctorate in biophysical chemistry.
After graduating, Wolfman began his career in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry. He worked at Pfizer Inc. for 29 years. Wolfman began to feel unsatisfied with his job, he said in a 2014 interview with The Heights. He decided then to return to academia, applying for a part-time position at every university in the Boston area. Wolfman worked as a part-time professor until he became full time in 2013 after retiring from Pfizer.
In the 2014 interview, Wolfman said that he fell in love with chemistry at 7 years old after watching an M&M’s dye dissolve in club soda.
“I thought, ‘That’s it,’” he said. “I want to dissolve M&M’s in club soda for the rest of my life.”
Just as the M&M’s experiment helped Wolfman along his career path, Wolfman helped students find their own path.
“As a very lost senior, Professor Wolfman helped me find my way and my future career as a pediatric nurse practitioner,” said Courtney Gleason, CSON ’20, in a written tribute. “I sat in his office countless times asking for advice and trying to figure out what was important to me in my future and career. I graduate this May in honor of him, because I truly would not be where I am today without his support and guidance. Rest easy NW.”
Sara Posada, BC ’18, wrote that Wolfman served as her mentor at BC and was the reason she is studying dentistry at Columbia University. Her first year at BC, she said, hit her hard, as she was living across the country from her family in California and needed to study harder than she ever had.
“Spring semester of freshman year, I showed up at Professor Wolfman’s office to ask him for a letter of recommendation so that I could transfer schools,” Posada said. “I was terrified because I didn’t know him that well, and I was scraping by with average grades in his class. He welcomed me in, and despite not knowing me, took the time to ask me about myself and make me feel comfortable. Spoiler: I ended up staying at BC, and Professor Wolfman became the person I would go to whenever I wanted any advice or guidance.
“He was always honest but caring. He had the best stories to tell and helped me achieve my goals whenever he could, whether it was by giving me someone’s email, writing me a letter of recommendation, putting in a good word for me, or just boosting my confidence. Signing up for Professor Wolfman’s class was the best decision I made at BC, and I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to spend some time with this amazing, caring, generous man.”
In his interview with The Heights, Wolfman described his motto: “Try to do the right thing.”
“I can’t say that I’m successful in every single circumstance,” Wolfman said in the interview. “I want to try to do the right thing. I feel that my job here goes beyond teaching the class. I feel like my job here is to enable the success of as many kids as possible, however they define success. I can get no greater satisfaction than that.”
Ashley Bodnar, MCAS ’20, is a member of the Gateway Scholars Program and wrote of the time Wolfman had her Gateway class to his house for dinner.
“He cared about each and every one of us so much and was generous enough to open his home to us,” Bodnar said. “I will never forget the bonds he formed with all of us and how great a mentor he was. He helped me through some of my hardest times at BC, and I am so thankful for the time I got to spend with him.”
A funeral service for Wolfman was held in Nashville on Sunday afternoon, and a memorial service is scheduled to be held in Boston in February, according to the blog post. His family asks that pictures of Wolfman, kind words, and memories be sent to the family at [email protected].
The Heights collected tributes to Wolfman from students and former students at BC. Some responses were included in the obituary above. Below are the other responses. Some of the responses below have been edited for clarity.
Despite being the man on campus with the scariest reputation, Professor Wolfman was constantly meeting with students to make a difference in their lives, big or small. It was impossible to get lunch with him without at least five other students coming up to say “hello”—that’s just how broad his impact was. But his influence was also deep. Wolfman cared about his students as people and supported us in our endeavors both in and out of the classroom.
Professor Wolfman used to play themed music before class. I remember how thoughtful his playlists were and how fun it was to guess the day’s theme, even if we were all stressing about the weekly Friday quiz. Sometimes he would let students make the playlist, and I remember one day he made a playlist specifically for a classmate, and they came in right after the music had ended. In typical Wolfman fashion, he teased about that day for the rest of the semester. You could always count on him for a laugh, a thoughtful comment, or some great advice when you needed it. He will be missed dearly.
— Danielle Rinaldi, MCAS ’21
Neil Wolfman … was, at first, a named that was feared.
But almost as quickly as that name struck fear into a young student’s heart, Professor Wolfman was there to quell that person’s soul. The moments with Professor Wolfman that stand out to me are the ones in which he showed his true self.
The ones where he scolded you, but not to berate you, but because he knew you were better than you demonstrated.
The ones where he laughed with you. Not because he was trying to put you at ease, but because he genuinely thought the thing that you said was worthy of a laugh.
The ones where he comforted you. Not merely to calm you down, but to get you to start thinking about how you would become stronger.
He was a leader, a guide, and a man of great integrity. I am most grateful to have known him, and I am more saddened to know that others will not get the chance to experience the life that he brings to those around him.
Thank you, Professor Wolfman, for everything.
— Joe, BC ’16
Professor Wolfman always cared about his students, regardless of the circumstances that stood against them. Freshman year, I missed the first test due to a concussion and took the second in the midst of mono, so I wasn’t really a shining student at the time. Soon after, I passed his office on my way out of Merkert and he stopped me with a simple “sit.” I sat down, scared out of my mind by what he might say to me. He looked at me and simply went, “You seem bright … are you bright?” I stared at him, confused by what he meant, and he repeated himself: “Are you bright?” I responded, “Uhhh … no? … I mean I guess?” He sighed and said he was excited to see me prove myself on the third test and final exam because he believed I could do great, and I was free to go. This was only one of the many moments we had together where even in my darkest days, he quickly encouraged me. He offered his phone number over a long break in case I needed someone to talk to and always reminded me in passing to email him for a meetup. At our final lunch back in September, we talked briefly about his illness but mostly spent the hour discussing how amazed he was at all the previous students who appeared with loving words and encouraging emails offering any help he needed. He asked me about my future plans, couldn’t believe I was already a senior, and we went our separate ways—him to teach Gateway Chemistry and me to ponder over my life since 9 a.m. general chemistry in 2016, trying to make friends, get an A (did not happen), and not be one of the four that dropped after that very first class. I’ll miss Professor Wolfman, he was a great man and an even better friend. I wish I could thank him one more time for seeing some potential in me back in my darkest days and never giving up on anyone who sought his wisdom and guidance.
— Lizzy Verish, MCAS ’20
My freshman year, I took general chemistry with Dr. Wolfman per recommendation of Tanya Zeina, another former student. She said Dr. Wolfman was the best teacher she’d ever had, so I knew I had to take his class. I spent most of my freshman year in his office hours and review sessions learning chemistry, but also at the Chocolate Bar eating gelato together and talking about friends, family, and life in general. At the end of my freshman year, he and his wife hosted a lovely dinner for some students, a day I will never forget—one full of laughter, food, and great conversation. For the remainder of my BC career, Dr. Wolfman was like a grandfather to me; he checked in before and after exams, vetted and advised me on relationships, and made himself available whenever I needed. He was someone I could count on, and he was always, always there for me. The Boston College community is losing a great man, but his legacy will live forever—through the students he’s taught and the lives he’s changed. Rest In Peace, Dr. Wolfman, you will never be forgotten.
— Madelynn Paul, BC ’18
My very first exam at Boston College was in Professor Wolfman’s general chemistry. I can distinctly remember walking into Devlin the morning of the exam to Professor Wolfman in an all-black suit and a playlist of music that perfectly matched the already tense tone of the room. The playlist ended just in time for the exam to begin, as Professor Wolfman had planned.
I knew I failed the exam as soon as I turned it in, and I left the classroom feeling like I did not deserve to be a pre-med student. After I got the exam back, Professor Wolfman took the time to sit down with me and go over what went wrong. We discussed the ways that I could improve my study habits and better manage my test anxiety, and he convinced me not to give up.
I will be starting med school in July, and so much of that is due to Professor Wolfman going above and beyond as a professor and mentor. He had such a profound impact on me and so many other students. We have lost a wonderful person, but he left a legacy that will be felt for many years to come.
— John Wagner, BC ’18
Professor Wolfman’s devotion to his students extended to everyone, not just those in his class. I was in his general chemistry class my freshman year and had a friend who was in another general chemistry section with a different professor. She was working on a problem set during lunch in Mac when we saw Professor Wolfman having lunch with another student. I remember I told her to go ask Wolfman for help—my friend was hesitant because she wasn’t his student, and he probably would just tell her to ask her TA. I told her he’d be happy to help, so the two of us went over and asked, and he spent 15 minutes walking her through the problem. He cared so much about every student at Boston College, not just his own, and so many students in the greater Boston College community owe their success to him. I feel very thankful to have had him as a mentor.
— Bea Lynch, BC ’18
After scoring a 31 percent on the first exam I took in his class, an upperclassman suggested I meet with him for lunch and talk to him about how to improve my performance in his class. His warmth and willingness to help me in any way he could turned into me confessing my mental health struggles to him, after which he immediately offered me his own love and support and encouraged me to seek help from University Counseling. A year and a half later, he convinced me to study abroad, emailing me afterward and sending me his other students who were undecided about studying abroad to tell them about my experience. He was the most incredible teacher and mentor I have ever had, and he is the reason I’ll be graduating pre-med from BC.
— Laura Stehler, MCAS ’20
Hi Professor, I’m emailing to see if we can come full circle and meet again in the pages of this newspaper. You have made such a huge impact on my life as a student at BC, from that fateful day six years ago when you agreed to be the subject of my very first feature article for The Heights (remember I sent such formal emails and wore a stuffy navy blue blazer to that interview in your office? I was as nervous as you were!) to supporting my first research experience at the Feinstein Institute and ultimately sending me on my way to the lab I love at BIDMC. If there’s anything I know that would make you happy, it would be the fact that everything I learned from you—how to be a good mentor, a good scientist, and a good person—I carry in my heart every time I’m in lab. I’ve gained valuable self-awareness and confidence thanks to you, and I try to pay it forward each day. Whether we chose it or it was chosen for us, science will always be the path we follow. Thank you for showing me that the journey is as fulfilling as it is difficult, and that the people you meet along the way are just as important as the work you are called to do. Thank you for guiding. Thank you for caring. Thank you for believing. I hope I’ve made you proud.
— Kayla Fernando, BC ’18
This article was updated to include student tributes.
Featured Image by Emily Sadeghian / Heights Archives