Annie Volk, teacher of learning disabled, dies at 65

Her children call her "Annie."

Described by friends and family as vibrant, earthy and deeply impassioned about her work in special education, Annie Volk died March 19 of complications from cancer while she was on a Caribbean cruise. She was 65.

"She magnetized people to her," said her youngest son, Ethan Mandelkern of Berkeley. "They cared very deeply about her. She's always had that effect on people."

Volk, an Oakland resident, taught at Cal State Hayward. She also pioneered a program for teaching Hebrew and Judaic studies to learning-disabled students. She was invited to speak at a 1993 world conference at Tel Aviv University.

After her retirement, she counseled teachers at Temple Sinai in Oakland who were preparing learning-disabled students for their b'nai mitzvah. She led a support group at the Reform synagogue for the parents of learning-disabled children.

"Hers was the only program to deal with the problem of learning-disabled kids having to learn two languages," said her companion of 10 years, Amnon Picker, who is the chief of operations at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito.

Other synagogues, hearing about her program, invited her to consult, he said.

Picker and Volk met through the personals ads in the Jewish Bulletin.

"At first I was so shy to tell people about it," said Picker, a native of Tel Aviv. "She would say, 'Why not? It's good.'"

Their 10 "wonderful, good years" are Picker's "only consolation now, in these sad times. She was a very sweet person. At the service, you could see how many lives she touched."

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Volk earned a master's degree in human development from the University of Kansas and a doctoral degree in special education from Pennsylvania State University. She moved to the Bay Area in 1985, settling in Oakland.

After her divorce, she worked in her field while raising three sons.

"I hated the baby-sitter, so she let me quit," Ethan Mandelkern said. "I came home by myself. Later she told me she felt really bad that I had to be alone after school, but she was a wonderful mother. She was all there for you."

Respected in her field, Volk "mentored a lot of younger women she came in contact with," he added.

Corky Wick, a lecturer in speech and communication studies at San Francisco State, had been friends with Volk since they were 14 or 15, Wick said.

The women were born at the same hospital — Mount Sinai in Milwaukee. "We were camp counselors together, and we were college roommates," said Wick, who introduced Volk to her future husband. When the marriage ended, Wick said she felt the loss, too.

"We were girls, then we became women. She was a friend I could talk to about anything. I was straight and I became a lesbian, and I could talk to her about that."

The two women took Volk's grandson, Michael, now 10, on numerous outings during his visits twice a year from New York. And they celebrated Passover and Chanukah "just the way we were both used to from when we were little," she said.

A skilled pianist, Volk "would play Mozart for me whenever I asked her," Wick said.

Doctors told Wick that Volk had only two or three months left when they diagnosed her cancer five years ago. A year before, her son David died of a heart attack at age 38.

"She went through a lot of battles," Mandelkern said. A lung collapsed about 85 percent. She had tumors removed from her thigh.

But even with the setbacks and opportunistic infections, these "were quality years," Wick said. And yet, "although I knew she was desperately ill, I was still not prepared for the shock of the loss."

In addition to Ethan, who is a specialist in pediatric mental health, Volk is survived by son Steven Mandelkern, who is teaching philosophy in Thailand — both "wonderful people," Wick said.

She is also survived by a sister, Shelley Volk, and a brother, Jerry Volk, both of Milwaukee, Picker, and her grandson, Michael Mandelkern.

Services were held at Oakmont Chapel in Lafayette.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Special Education Department of Temple Sinai in Oakland, 2808 Summit St., Oakland, CA 94609.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.