The Old Goat, R.I.P.

Tom Wolfe

This is my dad’s obituary—as I wrote it and pretty close to how it appeared.

THOMAS A. WOLFE (1940–2012)

Thomas Anthony Wolfe was born in Maquoketa, Iowa, on December 20, 1940. The son of Raymond Bernard Wolfe (1896–1941) and Gladys McGinn Wolfe (1903–1966), he was the great-grandson of Irish immigrants. The youngest of four, Tommy—as his sisters insisted on calling him—found himself deprived of a father as an infant and set free on not quite two hundred acres of Clinton County farmland. As a result, he lived inside his imagination. He became his hero, Jackie Robinson, by throwing balls against the barn and scooping up grounders. He found stacks of freshly mown hay to be occasions for an intense kind of dreaming. “What I remember most about farm life,” he once wrote, “was an aching feeling of loneliness.”

Wolfe graduated from Delmar High School in 1958 and then, with support from an uncle, from St. Ambrose College, in nearby Davenport. He later earned a master’s degree in American history from Western Illinois University. Having decided to forego farm life, Wolfe began his teaching career in Blue Grass, Iowa, before moving down the road to Walcott, where he taught across the hall from Frances Cupp Wolfe, whom he married on August 1, 1964. The couple—a sometimes uneasy mixture of Irish and French ancestry—raised three children in Davenport: Bridget Colleen (b. 1967), Brendan Martin (b. 1971), and Sara Elizabeth (b. 1973). As the names suggest, Wolfe’s Irish side often prevailed, although he lovingly called his wife Françoise. She called him “the old goat,” only sometimes lovingly, and they managed until 1993, when they separated. Divorce followed soon after.

Until his retirement in 1997, Wolfe held court in a room at Walcott Junior High School (later Middle School), mostly teaching American history. His great passion was for teaching, which took him back to the farm he never quite left: it was an exercise in imagination. A colleague remembers his closet full of hats. “He would put on a hat and act out various historical characters,” she recalled, and if on one occasion he actually tumbled from a windowsill during a performance—that made it only more memorable for his audience.

Wolfe’s other great passion was the teachers’ union. His wife Fran beat him to it, voting to strike on an occasion when he didn’t, and her zeal rubbed off on him. He served two terms as president of the Davenport Education Association, and was a near-annual delegate to assemblies of the state and national unions. For at least a decade he served as Midwest regional director of the NEA’s Peace and Justice Caucus, and in 2012 the Iowa State Education Association presented him with its highest honor, the Charles F. Martin Award for Association Leadership. He accepted with a generous and very funny speech calling for an end to the bitter and unthinking partisanship of American politics.

Tom Wolfe, who died at his Davenport home on August 4­, is survived by his sister Margery; his former wife; his close friend Nancy Porter, of Iowa City; his three children; and his three grandchildren. (His sisters Sara and Mary K died in 1998 and 2004, respectively.) One imagines he has finally returned to the old Wolfe homestead in Clinton County, to the hay bales and reveries. “As long as I live,” he wrote, “I’ll associate freshly mown hay with those dreams and yearnings, and I won’t know whether to be happy or sad.”

image: Tom Wolfe, ca. 1980s

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