From the Director

Remembering Richard Franke

We were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Richard Franke ’53 this Easter/Passover weekend. Rich’s contributions to the Whitney Humanities Center and its programs have and will continue to lift our spirits and nourish our minds. We have felt his support even during these pandemic years, when he and his wife, Barbara, were a lively and faithful presence at Zoom lectures and events. He was thrilled with the Whitney’s move to 320 York Street; he had an office in HQ, next to my own, full of programs and mementos of his many scholarly and philanthropic activities, as well as copies of his book that chronicles his grandparents’ struggle to build a life in America, Cut from Whole Cloth: An Immigrant Experience. I was honored to have had the chance to tour HQ with him last spring and spend some time with him and Barbara, a philanthropic leader in her own right, with ties to the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University, among other institutions.

In 2004, Rich and Barbara collaborated with then director Maria Rosa Menocal to establish the Franke Seminar and Lectures in the Humanities—a program that paired a Yale College seminar with public lectures by top scholars in their fields. The inaugural Franke Lecture series spanned the academic year 2004–5: “The Golden Age? Jewish Culture in Islamic and Christian Spain.” The program has thrived over the years with seminars on topics from art and music in Venice, to James Baldwin’s America, to the “secret life” of radio. This past fall, Professors Jason Stanley and Timothy Snyder taught a Franke Seminar on “Mass Incarceration in the Soviet Union and the United States.” Rich was able to enjoy the lecture series via Zoom. At 53 Wall Street, Rich and Barbara were a regular presence at the Whitney, where they faithfully attended Directed Studies lectures and WHC Fellows’ lunches, along with all the lectures that were integral to the programs he funded.

Beginning in 2005, the Whitney began welcoming Franke Visiting Fellows. This spring, two outstanding Franke Visiting Fellows, James McAuley and Alejandra Oliva, have been in residence working on their book projects—James McAuley’s history of holocaust memory, The Black Milk of Dawn, and Alejandra Oliva’s Rivermouth, about translation at the borders and the humanitarian crisis that is US immigration policy. He had very much hoped to attend their lectures—and we were looking forward to welcoming him and Barbara to HQ for these in-person events.

In 2012 he endowed the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities, which has grown into a thriving, vibrant program that aims to bridge the divide between scientists and humanists. Directed by Priyamvada Natarajan, from the Departments of Astronomy and Physics, and with invaluable contributions from assistant director, Tahia Kamp, the program has become one of Rich’s lasting contributions to intellectual life at Yale. He was not only a supporter financially but also a member of the committee that formalized the project before its founding and an ongoing participant in its executive committee. He especially enjoyed attending the undergraduate project presentations under the program’s auspices.

Yale awarded him an honorary degree of humane letters in 2001, and the Association of Yale Alumni awarded him its highest award, the Yale medal for service to the University, in 2012.  His national awards, too numerous to name, include a Phi Beta Kappa Award for distinguished service to the Humanities and a national Humanities Medal. 

On behalf of Gary Tomlinson, former director, Norma Thompson and Mark Bauer, former associate directors, our current associate director Diane Berrett Brown, along with the WHC staff and the leadership of the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities, Priyamvada Natarajan and Tahia Kamp, we send our deepest condolences to Barbara Franke, the Franke family, and all those in the Yale community who mourn his passing.


Alice Kaplan
Sterling Professor of French
Director, Whitney Humanities Center