Helen B. Wolfe, advocate of women's rights

Popular McDaniel College educator had been a supporter of women's rights for decades

  • Helen Wolfe
Helen Wolfe (Baltimore Sun )
March 13, 2013|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Helen B. Wolfe, an outspoken advocate of women's rights who also had been a member of the faculty of McDaniel College for more than a decade, died March 5 from cancer at Carroll Hospice Center's Dove House in Westminster. She was 79.

With a head of thick white hair, flashing porcelain-blue eyes and an outsized personality, Dr. Wolfe made an instant and lasting impression on those she met, friends said.

"When she came to the college, she had already had a distinguished career and in that sense showed a lot of the younger women the variety of roles she had undertaken," said Joan Develin Coley, who retired as president of McDaniel College in 2010.

"She was never afraid to speak up and was always in the fray. She showed women that you could be both kind and assertive, and she was both," said Dr. Coley.

"I don't think the people in Westminster knew how important and involved she was in the fight for women's rights, and she brought that advocacy on campus and strengthened it by adding her voice," she said.

The daughter of a courthouse worker and an educator, the former Helen Bickel was born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., where she graduated in 1951 from Bennett High School.

Dr. Wolfe earned a bachelor's degree in 1955 from Buffalo State College and a master's degree in 1961 in counseling from Cornell University. She earned a doctorate in counseling and student administration in 1968 from the State University of New York at Albany.

From 1955 to 1960, Dr. Wolfe taught home economics in the Kenmore, N.Y., public schools; from 1960 until 1965, she was a guidance counselor at Kenmore East Senior High School in Tonawanda, N.Y.

Between 1967 and 1973, she held various education positions with the state government in Albany, N.Y., first as deputy director of the Office of Education and Performance Review in the office of Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.

She later was chief of the Bureau of Research in Higher and Professional Education and then became chief of the Department of Programs and Evaluations, both in the New York State Education Department.

In 1975, Dr. Wolfe was named executive director of the American Association of University Women in Washington, a position she held for four years. From 1975 to 1980, when she joined the faculty of Western Maryland College, now McDaniel College, she served as a member of the Marine Corps' Professional Education Advisory Committee at Quantico, Va.

At McDaniel, Dr. Wolfe taught education, counseling and psychology courses. She twice served as dean, first as associate for academic affairs and then of the graduate school.

"She was also the first woman graduate dean at the college," said Dr. Coley. "In terms of the college, she was a terrific leader and not just as a leader of the women's faculty but everyone. She was an absolute role model."

She added that Dr. Wolfe's moral compass and push for women's rights and equality served as an inspiration to all.

"Her backbone gave us more backbone. She was just a marvelous person," said Dr. Coley.

One of the most important moments of her life, said her husband of 44 years, the Rev. Charles E. Wolfe, was being invited to the White House on Oct. 20, 1978, to witness President Jimmy Carter sign an extension to the Equal Rights Amendment.

It extended the deadline needed for the states to pass the ERA in order for it to become part of the Constitution.

"President Carter gave her the pen with appropriate documentation. It is one of our most cherished possessions," said Mr. Wolfe, a retired minister who had been pastor of Mount Washington United Methodist Church.

Dr. Wolfe wrote widely on counseling, education and the women's movement. One article, published by the New York State Education Department in 1974, brought her a measure of notoriety, said her husband. It was called "School Factors Influencing Reading Achievement: A Case Study of Two Inner City Schools."

"The two schools were in tough neighborhoods, one was in South Bronx and the other in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn," said Mr. Wolfe. "She heard from newspapers as far away as England."

Dr. Wolfe retired from McDaniel College in 1994.

"She had an outrageous sense of humor and we had great fun doing really funny things that had been her idea," said Dr. Coley.

"I remember Helen when she drove a zippy convertible and when her hair changed color often," said Joyce Muller, associate vice president for communications and marketing at McDaniel and a longtime friend.

"We used to laugh when I told her what the women behind her in church on Sunday must have been saying about its latest color," said Ms. Muller. "There was a little of the bad girl in Helen."

She had been a longtime member and was a former president of the Westminster Torch Club. She had served on the board of the Carroll County Women's Center.

Dr. Wolfe had been a member and president of the Woman's Club of Westminster. She enjoyed playing bridge, knitting, traveling and raising a succession of miniature poodles.

She was a member of Westminster United Methodist Church.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday in the Little Baker Chapel on the campus of McDaniel College in Westminster.

In addition to her husband, Dr. Wolfe is survived by four stepsons, Christian Wolfe of Houston, Hawley Wolfe of Baton Rouge, La., Lewis Wolfe of Kempner, Texas, and David Wolfe of Port of Spain, Trinidad-Tobago; and 13 grandchildren.


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