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From student to president: how a UA alum touched the lives of many

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Henry Koffler was the first University of Arizona alumnus to serve as president, and his nine-year tenure saw increases in enrollment, number of faculty and staff, and research expenditures.

When the Henry Koffler building was dedicated in 2000, Koffler reacted in “true Koffler style.”

“When [the building dedication] was announced … in true Henry Koffler style … he planned and carried off a major symposium on campus that focused on creativity and frontier areas and challenges in higher education in a university like ours,” former University of Arizona Provost George Davis said. “He used the building naming not as an opportunity to say, ‘Look how good I am,’ but rather used that point in time … [to think] about the future of higher education, research in higher education, athletics, the whole deal.”

Koffler died Saturday, March 10, at 95 years old. In 1982, he became the first UA alumnus to be president of the UA. Throughout his career as UA President, Koffler left a lasting legacy, put the university on the map as a research institution, grew the number of both students and faculty on campus and added 24 new buildings. 

“People are humbled by all the things that he’s done in life,” said Marie Wesselhoft, a family friend who met Koffler during his work with the UA Tech Park. “He had such a full life; everyone responded in the way that everyone was touched by him.”

Koffler was born in Vienna on Sept. 17, 1922 and came to the U.S. at age 17 in 1939. His mother soon followed, and they lived in Prescott, Arizona. 

In 1940, Koffler became a student at the UA, studying agricultural chemistry. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1943 and went to the University of Wisconsin to get his masters and doctorates in 1944 and 1947, respectively. 

For the next three decades, he worked at Purdue University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst before finally becoming UA president in 1982. 

“That is really relevant, because he was department head at Purdue for 15 years or so, and it was in that setting that he became one of these amazing, national leaders,” Davis said. “By the time he completed his stint as department head, the biological sciences at Purdue were viewed as just outstanding. I think it was that experience that particularly prepared him for leadership at the University of Arizona.”

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Koffler became a distinguished microbiologist and biochemist during his time at Purdue, which is why the Koffler building now houses biology and chemistry classes.

And when he went into retirement, his actions didn’t stop. He created the Arizona Senior Academy, a nonprofit dedicated to “un-retirement” or lifelong learning for retirees through lectures, outings, musicians and a strong connection to the UA.

“Even when he was in his prime as a university administrator, he was very sensitive to the fact that when people retire from the academic world, they need a way to stay busy,” said Sabra Anderson, treasurer of the Arizona Senior Academy (ASA). “He was always pushing that just because we retire, our minds don’t go to sleep. We need to still be active. He was just a model himself of using our creativity and our talents even in retirement.”

Gary Fenstermacher, former UA dean of the College of Education and president of the services division of ASA, agreed.

“Henry Koffler believed that a life well lived does not end in retirement,” Fenstermacher said. “He proudly would describe the Arizona Senior Academy as one of his greatest accomplishments.”

He also became an artist in the late 90s, and in 2013, he began using an iPad to create works for five different art shows. 

“When he was 90 years old, he was in the hospital and he started doing digital art,” Anderson said. “He got very good at it, and he had two shows, which is extraordinary for someone trained as a biologist.”

His art is all online at henrykofflerart.com and was recently displayed in the Jewish Community Center from January to early March. His art was the inspiration for the “Sacred Aging” series, which explored people’s individual purpose in the modern world. 

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“His art was an inspiration to us, this idea that in his 90s he could pick up a new hobby and talent and find meaning from it,” said Jennifer Selco, the director of Jewish Life and Learning at the JCC.

He also grew the UA’s reputation as a top research facility with the election into the Association of American Universities in 1985. He also expanded the general and honors education programs and implemented the first online student information system.

“When Henry Koffler came in in 1982, he found that … there was a lot of work to be done on computer systems,” Davis said. “It may be at that time students were still lining up in long lines to register for classes, which was unacceptable. There was not only a desire on Henry’s part, but a necessity on the part of the UA, to really move into the modern world in terms of student information systems, business communicating systems and the like. 

“I tell people everywhere that we must instill a love of lifelong learning in our students, and I can think of no better example than the way president Koffler pursued new ideas and forms of engagement through his entire life,” Robbins said in a press release. “I know he will be fondly remembered by the Wildcat family for years to come.”

He is survived by his wife, Phyllis, whom he met at a concert at the UA. They were together for 77 years, and were married for 71.

According to Wesselhoft, Phyllis is doing well.

“She is being overwhelmed with people’s kindess,” Wesselhoft said. “They’re coming, they’re visiting, they’re sending cards … She’s almost like a queen holding court. So she’s doing extremely well.”

There will be a memorial program at the ASA on April 20.

“There’s quite an outpouring of appreciation for everything he did and a lot of people comparing their thoughts; there’s a blog with memorials to him, and everybody had a different relationship with him,” Anderson said. “We’re feeling the loss very much, but we’re grateful for all that he did for us.”

In lieu of flowers, condolence cards may be sent to Phyllis Koffler, Vivaldi Villas, 7700 S. Vivaldi Court, Tucson AZ, 85747, or donations can be made to the Henry and Phyllis Koffler Prize at the University of Arizona Foundation.

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