Wolf provokes mixed response Slow-growth backers fear new zoning board member

March 02, 1997|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Were it not for the biggest disappointment of his life, Hobart Daniel Wolf Jr. would not be a county resident today, much less the newest member of the Board of Zoning Appeals.

The disappointment came more than 40 years ago, but is still fresh in the memory of the 72-year-old Eldersburg resident.

Back then, aviator Wolf was filling the airwaves with laughter on a late-night radio program in Louisville, Ky. He was so good that Lucky Strike planned to hire him and run him head to head mornings against another aviator, Arthur Godfrey, who was then the most popular radio voice in America.

Wolf was so certain that he would be going to New York that he asked a relative to rent an apartment for him, telling her not to worry about price.

But the day the deal was to go through, the Lucky Strike ad man told Wolf and the radio executives who had recommended him for the job that there was a change in plans. Radio was dead, the ad man said. Lucky Strike was turning to television with a new show called "Your Hit Parade."

"Biggest disappointment of my life," Wolf says of his lost opportunity for fame.

Shortly afterward, Wolf left the radio business and returned to Maryland to help his mother look after his father, who had developed what Wolf now believes was Alzheimer's disease.

He settled in Carroll, married and entered politics, making an unsuccessful run for county commissioner in 1966. Working with him on that campaign was a neighbor, Richard T. Yates, now a county commissioner.

Yates, much to the chagrin of South Carroll slow-growth advocates, appointed old-friend "Hoby" -- as Wolf likes to be called -- to the zoning board Feb. 20.

Slow-growth supporters wanted Eldersburg activist Carolyn Fairbank appointed to the post. Wolf may have been all right years ago, but he hadn't done much for them lately, they said.

But for Yates, Wolf conjured up memories of the battle they had with developers leading up to the 1966 campaign. "He fought for residents then, he'll do it again," Yates said after naming Wolf to the appeals board.

Slow-growth apostles aren't so sure. Most of them knew Wolf only as the owner of the airstrip on Oklahoma Road until he began showing up at public meetings again about four months ago.

They were aghast Feb. 4 when he told the zoning panel that to require signs to be posted and adjoining lot owners to be notified on any property where four or more lots are to be developed, as slow-growth advocates wanted, would be to "let the inmates run the asylum."

No one in the mostly slow-growth audience laughed. But Wolf, who saw himself as the class clown in high school, may have been looking for that. He doesn't take himself too seriously, and likes to jab -- some would say, annoy -- those who he believes do.

When asked, for example, what he would bring to the Board of Zoning Appeals, Wolf answered without hesitation: "A lot of one-liners, for one thing."

He was fulfilling that prediction between cases Friday morning, sharing stories and cracking jokes with appeals board members.

He sat in on the cases, munching peppermints and candy kisses he had brought along in a plastic sandwich bag. But he did not vote, deferring to alternate Ronald Hoff, who had been briefed in advance on the cases. Wolf's appointment came too late for him to be up to speed.

Storyteller and mimic

An inveterate storyteller and mimic whose repertoire runs the gamut from old-time movie stars Walter Brennan and Ronald Coleman to cartoon voices made famous by the late Mel Blanc, Wolf can entertain nonstop.

A native of St. Paul, Minn., Wolf attended private schools in Virginia and Minnesota while his father, who rose from the mailroom to the top echelon of Montgomery Ward, moved from '' Albany, N.Y., to Chicago to Baltimore.

"Whenever I went to school, my folks would move," Wolf quips.

During World War II, he enlisted in the Army and was assigned to an engineering program at Carnegie Institute of Technology. But when the program closed in 1944, it was back to boot camp in Georgia.

While there, he saw that the Army was looking for German translators. He did not know the language, but went to the post library and checked out a set of German records.

Using his gift for mimicry, he passed an Army language test and was assigned to prisoner-of-war camps to weed out Nazi SS troops, who were causing trouble within the camps. Today, Wolf speaks German, French, a little Arabic and a little Swedish, the language of his ancestors, "all by ear."

When Wolf was assigned to a special services unit late in his Army career, he was given a jeep to get from camp to camp. He lent the jeep at night to an Army pilot, who in return, during the day, taught Wolf to fly.

Wolf studied radio media at Towson State and Drake universities, earning a degree at each and setting out for a career in broadcasting. He began using his gift for voices to add characters to his radio shows, and began writing scripts for them.

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