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Atis and Judy Folkmanis

AN ANTIOCH STORY OF LOVE, LEARNING, AND PUPPETS

Atis and Judy Folkmanis

Judy and Atis Folkmanis with two of their Furry Folk Puppets from their company, Folkmanis, Inc. (Photo courtesy of Folkmanis Inc.)

Judith “Judy” Siegel had been a student at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania when, on a return trip to Brooklyn for Thanksgiving, a close friend told her about Antioch College.

The friend, Susan Kashman ’65, “was just ecstatic about Antioch,” Judy said. “She told me about Red Square. She had a boyfriend, and then there was this co-op plan.”

Though she can’t remember exactly what she wrote when she sat down to apply as a transfer student, Judy recalls she composed an impassioned letter to the admissions committee. Her letter connected.

She arrived in Yellow Springs the following fall, and the village and the town were much more than she’d expected.

The academics, she said, were challenging. A biology major, she spent much of her time in the labs. There was also time to enjoy campus life. For Judy, this meant folk dancing on Red Square. When the music started “it would just pull me like a magnet,” she said. “I so loved the music and the dancing.”

Then came a co-op in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she sectioned eyes for a research project at Harvard Medical School. She rented a room that term in a house on Bigelow Street shared with other college students. On a bulletin board with resident names, she saw that a second Antiochian had also rented a room there, an Atis Folkmanis. Judy assumed this “Atis,” someone she didn’t know from campus, must be a woman. The person she met was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, wiry fellow one year ahead of her at Antioch.

“There was just something about him,” she said. “I was absolutely smitten.”

More than 50 years after that meeting, Atis and Judy Folkmanis returned to Yellow Springs for Reunion 2012. The couple, founders of Folkmanis Inc., creators of the immensely successful Furry Folk Puppets, are among Antioch College’s most generous benefactors, giving resources and time (Atis is a member of the Board of Trustees) to ensure the survival of the college they love.

“If we didn’t have Antioch, we wouldn’t have had that co-op, we wouldn’t have started our company,” Atis said.

“Being here on my 49th anniversary,” Judy said, “I feel a fullness in my heart that brings deep feelings of love that I’ll always have for this school.”

‘My responsibility’

The fight to save Antioch College brought alumni and friends from around the world to a single cause. Alumni of the College from across the generations came together in 2007 to rescue the institution from extinction when Antioch University announced the institution would close at the end of that academic year. Every bit has helped—every volunteer hour worked repairing neglected buildings, every bit of energy advocating for the tiny liberal arts college in Yellow Springs. But a handful of alumni and friends have given sizeable amounts of their personal resources to place the newly independent institution on more solid financial footing.

During his “State of the College” address at Reunion 2012 this summer, President Mark Roosevelt recognized a group of donors who have given large percentages of their personal and family wealth to Antioch College: Barbara Slaner Winslow, the Morgan Family Foundation, Kay and Leo Drey, the anonymous donor represented by the California Community Foundation, and Atis and Judy Folkmanis.

“Let me be 100 percent clear: We are enormously grateful for every donation, but we would not be here today without them,” Roosevelt said.

Lee Morgan 66, vice chair of the Board of Trustees, described Atis as one of the most dedicated and supportive members of the Board. “Atis has a dual commitment to Antioch College and to Yellow Springs,” Morgan said. “Most people are unaware of the kind of support he’s given to the survival of this College-even before we secured our campus.”

To hear Atis and Judy tell it, they give to Antioch because they owe their life’s happiness to the College. They met while students here, married in the campus’ Rockford Chapel just before her graduation in 1963. Together, they have two children, adult sons.

The business they built together, a company that sells more than 1 million puppets a year, was born from a gamble they made not long after Judy’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis while Atis was trying to decide whether or not to continue on with a career in the sciences following a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley.

The rigor of an Antioch education, as well as the resiliency that comes from co-op, gave them the resolve and ingenuity to turn Judy’s crafts into a viable enterprise, Atis said.

As he sees it, there was no question of whether he would give to Antioch College.

“We know what Antioch was and we have money and we have enough to live comfortably,” he said. “Giving away significant amounts doesn’t matter that much.”

“We don’t want fancy cars or jewelry or any of those trappings,” she said. “I much rather give it back where it belongs, to this wonderful school that brought us together. It’s like a circle.”

A connection that began when he was ten years old. “I was always a part of it. It is a part of me,” he said.

“Antioch saved him,” Judy added.

“That’s the way I feel about it,” he said. “This is my responsibility in many ways, because, look what I got.”

He looks over to Judy, and she smiles at him.

A home after the war

Atis Folkmanis’ favorite family photo was taken by a journalist at New York’s Pier 61. Atis’ father, Konstantine, stands at far left, a partially eaten biscuit in one hand, a paper cup in the other. He’s dressed impeccably in a tie, suit, and overcoat. He has a stern look on his face, weathered. Atis’ mother, Margarieta, is wearing a beret and a coat with fur cuffs. His sisters, Baiba, 9, and Zaiga, 11, seem unaware of the camera capturing their image. Ten-year-old Atis, at far right, is the only member of the family to stare directly into the camera. The headline under the photo reads, “D.P.’s No Longer.”

Folkmanis family arriving in the US

Ten-year-old Atis Folkmanis (at far right), with his parents and his sisters, Baiba, 9, and Zaiga, 11, at New York’s Pier 61 upon their arrival to the U.S. from Germany, where they lived in a displaced persons camp following World War II. (Photo from Presbyterian Life magazine, circa 1948)

In July of 1944, the Folkmanises escaped by boat from Latvia to Gdańsk, Poland. This was a week before the Russians arrived. They then traveled by train to Dresden, Germany. While there, Margarieta found a job as a dentist in Waldenburg, a small town 100 miles west of Dresden. A few months later, Dresden was completely destroyed in a fire bombing raid.

When the war ended, Konstantine Folkmanis, using a four-wheel potato wagon, pulled his family 200 miles to Fulda, Germany, which was in the American zone.

There were approximately 9 million refugees in Germany. Among their numbers were Germans who were expelled from other European countries where they had been a significant part of the population, people who escaped countries occupied by the Soviet Union, and individuals who had been inmates of Nazi concentration camps, labor camps, and prisoner-of-war camps.

For four years, the Folkmanises lived in bombed-out military barracks in Fulda. Black and white photos that Atis’ sister Baiba collected show crumbling buildings riddled with bullet holes. Atis points to an upper floor window in one picture.

“That was our room,” he said. “We were lucky. Many people had to share a gymnasium or other large rooms with a hundred other families, but my father was a leader of the camp, so we got our own room.”

President Harry Truman reluctantly signed the 1948 Displaced Persons Act, which gave permanent residence to 400,000 World War II refugees. The law required sponsorship of all immigrants who would enter the U.S. The Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs sponsored Konstantine Folkmanis and his family, and Antioch College provided him with a job, which was a requirement for the program.

That photo taken on Pier 61 captures a family in transition. There would be some tragedy in the U.S.—Zaiga’s death, for example—but most of what the family encountered was full of opportunity.

“The Yellow Springs culture and the wonderful peer group there played a very significant role in guiding me in my achievements in life,”Atis said.

Konstantine’s first job in the U.S. was as a carpenter at Antioch College. He would later find employment at Morris Bean & Company. Atis would enroll at Antioch College seven years after the family’s arrival in Yellow Springs.

Antioch, he admits, was not his first choice. “I had some hesitation on staying in town, but I have no regrets that I decided to stay,” he said. “It was just great. Classes were wonderful. Louis Filler taught here and Stephen Jay Gould [was] in classes with us.”

“He was in my class,” Judy corrected.

“Mario Capecchi graded her lab,” Atis said. Capecchi would win a Nobel Prize in 2007. “The point is, the caliber of people was fabulous. The teachers were generally good. Antioch at that time was being compared to Oberlin, schools of that level.”

Though he had reservations, even then, about pursuing a career in the sciences, Atis majored in chemistry.

Folkmanis home in Yellow Springs

Atis Folkmanis grew up in this Yellow Springs house. The family arrived here after having been displaced following World War II. (Photo courtesy of the Folkmanis family)

During his final co-op, he accepted a position at the Arthur D. Little research company. Antiochian friends told him of a rooming house in Cambridge where others had stayed while on co-op in the area.

Over dinner one night, he met Judy Siegel, an Antioch student who’d transferred from Bucknell.

Inseparable

When they first met, she said, Atis Folkmanis was not as smitten as she.

“He was spending a lot of time dating the Harvard women,” she said.

“Well, I was a social person,” he said. “But when you share a house with someone, you spend a lot of time together and you really get to know them.”

After three months in Cambridge, Atis and Judy returned to Yellow Springs as a couple. It took some doing for Judy to introduce her parents to Atis, a non-Jew whose family emigrated to the U.S. by way of Germany.

He graduated a year before Judy and entered a doctoral program in biochemistry at Brandeis University. They planned their wedding, and in March, just two months shy of her graduation, they married in a small ceremony in Rockford Chapel.

Atis left graduate school so they could join the Peace Corps, which took them to Malaysia for two years. Upon their return to the U.S., Atis re-enrolled at Brandeis, where he completed his PhD. For his postdoc at Berkeley, Atis was part of a team that studied gene regulations of DNA expression by protein repressors and activators. Their findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, among other journals.

At the end of his four years at Berkeley, Atis was still unsure that he wanted to pursue a career in the sciences, let alone a career in academia. Instead of finding a research or teaching appointment, he asked Judy to take a gamble on a hobby she’d developed when their oldest child was in preschool.

From craft to a livelihood

Four years earlier while the couple was still living in Boston, Judy took up puppet-making. She’d always been interested in crafts. The preschool that her son attended would routinely put on puppet shows. In 1969, Sesame Street debuted to huge ratings. Women’s Day magazine published patterns for some of its characters. Judy took those patterns and made a Cookie Monster, Ernie, and Bert.

Judy began making puppets on her dining room table for extra cash while Atis completed his doctoral work. She sold the puppets at a consignment shop in Harvard Square.

On their move to Berkeley in 1972, she got a city license and sold puppets on Telegraph Avenue on the weekends.

It was intended, she said, as a temporary enterprise until Atis landed a permanent professorship. But in early 1976, Judy created a realistic-looking beaver puppet. The success of that puppet got Atis thinking of the possibilities.

“It was the ‘Eureka’ moment that changed everything,” he said. “No one had ever sold a line of realistic wildlife puppets before.”

Judy, however, said she was skeptical. “I wanted to be a professor’s wife and live in a college town,” she said. “When Atis suggested doing this, I thought, ‘Oh no! I want to be a real person with a real job and a title. I don’t want to just be some housewife selling puppets.’”

An old photo of the Folkmanis family

Judy (left) and Atis (center) Folkmanis with their sons Jason (center) and Dan (right), and Atis’s mother, Margarieta (standing). (Photo courtesy of the Folkmanis family)

Still, she agreed to give it a year. She and Atis wrote out a contract on a three-by-five card: If, after a year, they were not successful at selling puppets, they’d go back to Plan A. That, of course, never happened. They test-marketed the beaver at craft fairs, and the response was overwhelmingly good. “Beavers led to skunks, raccoons, bears, otters, and squirrels,” Atis said. “Within an incredibly short period of time, we had a marketable line.”

In addition to building the business, Atis helped on the production side of the house by cutting parts. Production moved from their dining room to a rented space, and the company hired four seamstresses.

“His parents thought he was wasting his education,” Judy said. “But our education was complete. At Antioch, we both learned all the skills we needed to function as a business.”

“We had no business training but the scientific method is very compatible for bottom-line thinking,”Atis said.

From its headquarters in Emeryville, Folkmanis Inc. has grown to become the premier manufacturer of plush puppets worldwide. Folkmanis® Puppets offers more than 200 realistically designed creatures—both exotic and familiar—on the market today. The company has 40 employees and sells millions of puppets.

“Being the chief designer of Folkmanis puppets is an honor enough,” Judy said. “To have the background I had going to Antioch, to starting the business, which we wouldn’t have done without the impetus from this college—this college is joy, and I will always remember it that way.”


Gariot P. Louima is the chief communications officer and Writing Institute coordinator at Antioch College.