his Life


By Diane May, sister-more-than-in-law

     I would like to preface my remarks with the disclaimer that I know my words will be inadequate.
     Neil Wolfman was a man of character, intellect, and compassion. He lived a life of action, not one of unrealized intention, adhering to his personal mantra “Try to do the right thing.”  He was a natural born teacher with the curiosity of a scientist and the ability to marvel at the world we live in. He was a loyal and caring friend, a concerned and loving uncle, and above all a loving son, father, and husband.
     I’ve heard Neil use the phrases 'units of accomplishment’ and ‘spheres of influence.’ How very appropriate that a professor of chemistry would think in those terms. His units of accomplishment in both his professional and personal life were many and his spheres of influence will continue to expand through the people whose lives he has touched.  His was a full life in which he balanced work and family, ever mindful of what was really important.
     The only child of holocaust survivors, he grew up with a sense that in some way, after all his parents had been through, he was their hope for a better new world. They did not pressure him to succeed, but succeed he did. Neil said that when he was a kid, one day he dissolved M&M candies in soda water and the water changed colors. He was hooked; he wanted to dissolve candy in fizzy water for the rest of his life.  A chemist was born.
     Y’all know how his life unfolded, Bronx High School of Science, chemistry major at NYU, then on to Cornell where as a TA he discovered his talent for teaching. He completed his PhD in biophysical chemistry the same year Deborah Jane May from Nashville, Tennessee was finishing up her horticultural degree.
     We’re glad Deborah has a thing for chocolate or she wouldn’t have stopped to unwrap a candy bar on the steps of the student union when Neil just happened to be walking by. They said hello and the small exchange ended in going to a movie and then, even though they were both leaving Ithaca, through a series of serendipitous coincidences, they continued to date. Deborah turned out to be the love of his life and their marriage was a partnership of 38 years. When Neil was ill and Deborah stayed right by his side, it upset Neil that he would not be at Deborah’s side, when she was old and frail. How like Neil.
     To say Neil loved his family is an understatement. He was a devoted family man from the start. I guess you could call Celia, Hannah, and Willie units of success. I know he was a dedicated father and so proud. He delighted in his children’s successes, welcomed James and John into the family with open arms, (I’m sure after passing a Neil no-topic-off-limits interview), and he was delighted to get to know Katie. He was over the moon at being a grandfather to Logan and Sarah.
     As we used to say, he was a hands on dad; and, when my family with four kids would invade Dover every winter break for our annual two-week visit, he was a flat out activities director. Neil loved the May-hem (sorry bad pun). I remember one snowy December day coming downstairs to find 7 kids, and maybe Julia from next door, sprawled around the den watching the Magic Flute, with Uncle Neil pausing and narrating occasionally to keep the younger ones engaged. He reveled in coming up with fun outings, whether dim sum in China town, the best hill in Dover for sledding, or Blue Man Group. He shared what mattered to him including taking us to the Holocaust Memorial near Faneuil Hall.
     Professionally, Neil’s first career was in the drug development industry, primarily researching autoimmune diseases and muscle regeneration, focusing on drug specific treatment. More units of success. Frankly, I would not be able to explain them to you- but I can say that at Pfizer, along with being a dedicated researcher, he was a valuable mentor and friend to his colleagues. People mattered to Neil.
     After an overlap, Neil left the world of pharmaceuticals for academia. Wow, at Boston College his units of accomplishment and his spheres of influence exploded. Teaching freshman chemistry at BC was a dream job for Neil, in and out of the lecture hall. He felt his job was “to enable the success of as many kids a possible, however they defined success." He was passionate about teaching chemistry and influenced many students to realize their potential by encouraging them to look beyond pre-med aspirations. He and Deborah hosted students for an annual semester dinner at their home, among other strategies for Neil to connect with his students. He helped students with their course selection, prepare for job interviews, and fill out grad school applications. He cared about his students and considered being an educator one of society’s most laudible carreers.
     In 2015 Dr. Wolfman earned the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award. This is a big, big deal because winners are selected based on the cumulative nominations from students over multiple years. As a teacher Neil changed and influenced lives and his students recognized that. This fall, during one of his hospital stays, a previous student visited Neil, a young doctor who now performs facial reconstruction on children. The doctor told me that as a freshman chemistry student it was Dr. Wolfman who convinced him that that he could be pre-med, and it was Dr. Wolfman who wrote his recommendation for med school, and it was Dr. Wolfman whom he invited to his white coat ceremony.
     Neil was secure in his legacy. He knew that he had been a valuable mentor, and he had ample proof that his service to young chemistry students had born fruit. He knew how much he was valued. He was confident that his hopes for his children were being realized and that they would carry on his legacy. As I said, he was a man to whom individuals mattered. Relationships and connection were important. We, his friends and family, had time to tell him how much he was loved and he had time to tell us. Of that I am grateful.