Wolke had a knack for making chemistry understandable to all

Chemistry Professor-emeritus Robert L. Wolke — known for his ability to interpret chemistry to the least-experienced students and the public, and his talent for developing faculty and facilities — died Aug. 29, 2021.

“He was a brilliant scientist, gifted teacher and a real raconteur,” said W. Richard Howe, associate dean for administration and planning in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences. Howe recalled Wolke as “an active contributor to any discussion with a wealth of insights, facts and personal experiences.

“Bob’s core teaching assignments were graduate-level physical chemistry and nuclear chemistry,” he said. “However, he had a special knack for teaching chemistry for undergraduate non-science majors. Bob had a flair for presenting basic chemical principles in a fashion that was clear and meaningful to those students who didn’t have a mathematical background,” in the classroom and in the textbooks Impact: Science on Society and Chemistry Explained.

Wolke was the first director of the University’s Office of Faculty Development (1977-87), working with new and experienced faculty as well as graduate teaching assistants. He was also chair of the chemistry department’s Facilities Planning Committee, which worked with the architects and lab designers to consolidate the highly scattered chemistry unit “to address the department’s current needs and to provide for the future requirements of faculty research in fields that hadn’t even been identified,” Howe said. The result was a new 15-floor science facility, since dubbed the Chevron Science Center.

“Bob provided comedic updates on campus politics whenever the opportunity presented itself,” Howe remembered. “Former Chancellor (Wesley) Posvar held a series of off-site, annual leadership conferences. Although Bob never shielded the chancellor from his hard-hitting satire, Chancellor Posvar enjoyed Bob’s view of the University and didn’t hesitate to include Bob as part of the evening entertainment.”

After his retirement in 1990, Wolke channeled his many talents into a column for the Washington Post, titled Food 101, and wrote a series of popular books that included “What Einstein Didn’t Know”; “What Einstein Told His Barber”; “What Einstein Told His Cook”; and “What Einstein Kept Under His Hat,” the latter two of which were nominated for best technical or reference book by both the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

He won both the IACP’s Bert Greene Award for best newspaper food writing, and the American Chemical Society’s 2005 Grady-Stack Award for interpreting chemistry to the public.

Born April 2, 1928, Wolke earned his B.S. in chemistry from the Polytechnic Institute of NYU and a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from Cornell.

He began his Pitt career directing the Wherrett Laboratory of Nuclear Chemistry (1961-77), and was academic dean of Semester at Sea (1982).

In addition, he taught chemistry in Spanish at universities in Puerto Rico and Venezuela, was a higher-education consultant for UNESCO and the USIA in Bangladesh, and served as a resident fellow in French history and culture at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France.

One former colleague who joined the chemistry department in 1968, Alfred Moye, counts Wolke as a mentor. “I was really very fortunate that Bob Wolke embraced me,” Moye said. “He was a fellow who was really interested in teaching and how to make chemistry less intimidating to his students. He was quite a role model for me. And I believe he was among the faculty who submitted my name for outstanding teaching award” during the award’s first year, Moye said.

“The fact that he started writing about cooking was not a surprise,” Moye added. “He was bringing alive the chemistry that all of us see” — but don’t always understand as chemistry.

He is survived by his wife Marlene Parrish; daughter Leslie Wolke; and brother Arthur Wolke. Memorial gifts are suggested to World Central Kitchen.

— Marty Levine