The following essay, in slightly different form, was delivered as a eulogy for Charles Hull Wolfe at his memorial service in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on November 23, 2014.
LIKE MOST EARLY CHILDHOOD MEMORIES, mine are vague and fragmentary, faded snapshots that are probably half-invented, based on things my parents told me and the mind’s hunger to fill in the blanks. But I do have a fleeting memory of walking past a tall apartment building on a hill overlooking Lake Erie and down to the water’s edge. And then the metallic feel of sitting in an eight-foot aluminum rowboat and the sensation of a life vest’s rough fabric against my cheek.
Beyond that I’ve had to rely on what my father told me—of the times he took me out on the lake when I was only two or three—and of the adventures we had there, such as the time he rowed us far from our apartment building only to be forced to shore by an oncoming storm, leading to a phone call from a stranger’s house and rescue by car from my visibly upset mother. My father never tired of telling me that when stormy weather caused rising swells to begin dumping water into our little rowboat, I simply asked: “What do I do, Daddy?” “Just hang on,” he said as he rowed hard for the shore.
When he would recount that exchange, his face would always fill with light, as if my trust in him were one of the seven wonders of the world.
Many years later, when I was a teenager, our final adventure in a rowboat consisted of getting lost in the serpentine channels of aptly named Marshfield, Massachusetts, and ultimately being forced to clamber back over the muddy marshes to where we started, dragging the boat. That day got us second-degree sunburns and nearly a trip to the hospital.
Truth be told: I think my father secretly liked getting into such scrapes.
And so the picture of him at the oars of a rowboat remains for me the perfect emblem and icon of his life. As a boy growing up in New York City in the 1920s and ’30s he built his own rowboat and propelled it across the oily Hudson River and back. Once he invited his mother and older brother out with him, only to find, halfway across, that three was a crowd in that small vessel—leading to yet another rescue operation.
My father grew up poor, and so I think he instinctively loved the way a rowboat’s simplicity and self-sufficiency embodied a certain understanding of human dignity and worth. In his youth, spending a summer on Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks with a friend from a wealthier family, he was forced to fend for himself in a rowboat while his friend took sailing lessons. I suppose he might have felt hurt by that, but in the end, I don’t think he minded.
Fending for himself was something my father, Charles Hull Wolfe, had to do more than he should, perhaps—at once a blessing and a curse. He was not the kind of man to speak at length of his personal history or complain about the traumas of his youth. But as I grew up, I began to realize just how many obstacles he had to overcome.
My father never knew his grandfather, who had immigrated to the United States in the late nineteenth century. According to our rather spotty family legend, Joseph Wolfe was orphaned as a child and eventually ran away from his aunt and uncle’s home in Warsaw. Somehow he made his way to a port and managed to obtain work as a purser’s boy on transatlantic steamers until he could pass through Ellis Island. This enterprising young man went on, I was told, to become the owner of the first two casinos in Colorado Springs. True to his gambling ways, Joseph lost everything and died penniless in Miami in 1917.
His son Ernest, my grandfather, came to the conclusion that gambling—the endless cycle of boom and bust—was the essence of capitalism. He found inspiration in the writings of Karl Marx and went on to become a student of political science and economics, based at such institutions as Cornell and Columbia, and eventually becoming a junior member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Brains Trust.
According to my father, Ernest was an abstracted intellectual who left nearly all of the child-rearing duties to his wife. Though officially an agnostic or atheist, Ernest nevertheless was fascinated by religion and dragged my father and his two brothers to different churches each week.
When the time came for my father to go to college, he was so ill with the asthma and chronic bronchitis that had afflicted him throughout his life that he was told to attend Arizona State for the climate. But he continued to be deathly ill and so he was told to go to the university in Mexico City, where the air was even thinner and drier.
But even there he became so sick that he could no longer attend classes and lay bedridden in a rat-infested tenement, awaiting death. A fellow American who lived in the same building stopped by to offer help. He left my father with a copy of the Holy Bible and Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy.
My father read both books and within a short time had what he believed was a profound experience of healing and regeneration. He decided to leave college and went to Los Angeles, where he rose quickly in the booming radio and television advertising business.
When he returned home to New York to share the good news of his healing, his faith, and his success with his parents, his father was not in a celebratory mood. “Charles,” he said, “what you’ve told me is equivalent to a daughter telling me that she had become a prostitute. In your case, you have whored yourself to the capitalist system. If you do not change your ways, I will be forced to disown you. I will give you one week to change your mind.”
But after that week my father returned to say that he didn’t see anything ethically wrong with his choice of career. And my grandfather stayed true to his word, disowning my father on the spot. They never saw each other again, and soon afterward Ernest abandoned the family altogether. My father’s bond to his mother—whom he had nicknamed “The Queen” or “Queenie”—already strong, became even stronger.
Returning to Los Angeles, my father wrote Modern Radio Advertising, a book still cited by historians of the industry, and continued up the ranks. At one point he had a house in Encino with a huge pool. His next-door neighbor was John Wayne. He would become one of the youngest creative directors at the big firms, working for both BBDO and McCann Erickson.
But if my father became one of the “Mad Men,” he was about as square and straight as they came. In fact, unlike Don Draper from the television show, my father was not driven by dreams of seduction and wealth, despite his prospering career. Rather, his faith and his belief in the essential decency of the American political system caused him to strike out on his own and eventually to work for nonprofit think tanks. He was in the room in 1953 when a young William F. Buckley Jr., fresh out of Yale, came to make a presentation about the magazine he wanted to found, National Review.
By the time I was old enough to talk with him about these matters, the conservative movement of which he had become a part was about to make its mark. But as important as electoral victories for conservative candidates might have been, both my father and I began to worry that conservatism was being defined too narrowly by power and ideology and that the younger generations were losing touch with the deeper historical and spiritual sources of political order. My father increasingly became preoccupied with such matters, while I turned toward literature and the arts.
Some of my own most poignant memories are of him at work—whether in an office on Forty-Second Street in New York or in the basement of our house. He would move back and forth between his IBM Selectric typewriter—where his fingers moved over the keyboard, to my mind’s eye, with the same grace as Van Cliburn’s at a Steinway—and the light table, where he composed ads with the aid of X-Acto knives, rubber cement, and T-squares.
His later years were not easy, as he moved between stints with various nonprofits and periods of freelancing. His utter lack of interest in money—and his total preoccupation with the things he felt moved to say—made him a less than stellar organizer and fundraiser, and so most of his grand schemes did not come to fruition. It also meant that he often found it difficult to be fully present in his roles as husband and father.
Like his own father he was a frequently abstracted figure, yet any temptation I might feel to nurse a grievance about that was balanced by an inchoate sense that he was a sort of flawed mystic. Like a monk in a cell praying for the world, my father labored in the basement of our home, filling thousands of pages with messages about the biblical faith underlying the events and institutions that shaped America. But where some might have looked at him and seen failure and frustration—most of those pages were never destined to make it out of that basement—I felt something akin to awe, even as my heart was torn by the setbacks he faced.
In my mind’s eye he is still typing away, like a man in a rowboat in the middle of a lake steadily rowing for the shore as storm clouds gather in the distance.
That his faith was the single most important thing in his life no one who knew him could ever doubt. When I became a Roman Catholic I knew it would be difficult for his deeply Protestant soul, but to my relief he refused to commit the same sin as his father. Not only did our bond hold, but he went out of his way to seek in the pre-Reformation era principles that would perdure into the American founding age.
Given his background, it is understandable that my father was not always able to maintain deep emotional connections to others. As a fellow intellectual, I always had an advantage here, since we shared a love of language and could talk endlessly about ideas. But in his way he had a very deep—if shy and awkward—love for my mother, sister, wife, and children.
In his last years, he had the blessing of being cared for by a loving family and surrounded by a community that looked upon him as something of an elder statesman. I think he loved the fact that from his window, he could look out at a pond, where, before he became too frail, he could still go for occasional outings in a rowboat.
In her own tribute to my father my wife Suzanne concluded her remarks by saying “may you ‘row your boat ashore’ so that you may always be united with the One who calms the storm, who comes to us walking on the water.”
That’s just how I imagine him meeting his Lord and Master. He is out rowing on a vast, sunlit lake, moving steadily, purposefully toward the horizon, when he sees Christ coming to him on the water. Now he sets down his oars without a second thought, his labors done. He leaps out of the boat and goes running over the waves, filling his lungs with fresh air. At last he falls into the embrace of the brother and father he had loved so long and who had never, ever abandoned him.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.