Thomas Anthony Wolfe was born in Maquoketa, Iowa, on December 20, 1940. The youngest child of Raymond B. Wolfe and Gladys McGinn Wolfe, he was the great-grandson of Irish immigrants. His sisters were Sara Terese, Mary K., and Margery. After his father died in 1941, Wolfe found himself set free on not quite 200 acres of farmland just outside Delmar, in Clinton County. He lived inside his imagination, becoming his hero, Jackie Robinson, by throwing balls against the bar 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 later wrote, “was an aching feeling of loneliness.”
Wolfe graduated from Delmar High School in 1958 (a class of nine students) and then, with support from an uncle, from Saint Ambrose College, in nearby Davenport, in 1962. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history. Later he earned a master’s degree in American history from Western Illinois University. His thesis was on Father Charles Edward Coughlin, an anti-Semitic, anti-Roosevelt propagandist.
Soon after finishing his undergraduate work, Wolfe began his teaching career in the tiny farm town of Blue Grass, Iowa. Soon he moved down the road to Walcott, Iowa, another small town where he taught across the hall from Frances S. Cupp, 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, Brendan Martin, and Sara Elizabeth. 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.
Wolfe suffered a massive heart attack in December 1997, prompting him to retire from full-time teaching. Except for his short stint in Blue Grass, he spent his entire career at Walcott Junior High School (later middle school), teaching American history and some language arts. 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 remembered his closet full of hats. “He would put on a hat and act out various historical characters,” she said, recalling that on one occasion he actually tumbled from a windowsill during a performance.
Wolfe’s other great passion was the teachers’ union. His wife, he sometimes said, 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 Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) and the National Education Association (NEA). For at least a decade he served as Midwest regional director of the NEA’s Peace and Justice Caucus, and in 2012 the ISEA 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.
Wolfe also was an enthusiastic writer: of personal essays, family histories, letters to the editor, and any other form that handily presented itself.
Wolfe died of natural causes probably on August 4, 2012, his body being found in his home several days later.
image: Tom Wolfe talking to a historical reenactor, Galena, Illinois