The Late Ken Wolfe was a man I never really understood.
When I first came to New York City to live permanently in the fall of 2002, I already had a job lined up as an attorney with the City of New York Law Department, Office of the Corporation Counsel. It came as a great surprise, however, when I learned that I had been assigned to work in the Staten Island Borough Office. Here I had my mind set on working in a large office with a lot of kids close to my own age, the busy City bustling just outside and instead I found out that I’d been assigned to the only Borough Office that could ever possibly be mistaken with an office in my hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, except that Raleigh’s equivalent office is probably even a little bit larger.
Moreover, I would have to schlep from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, not far from the border of Queens, thorough Manhattan, down to the Staten Island Ferry and across the harbor on a daily basis just to get to work (over an hour commute time, after having purposefully chosen an apartment that would put me within a 20 or so minute commute from either the Queens, Manhattan or Brooklyn office).
And then I met my boss, Ken Wolfe. Hugh Kenneth Wolfe, formally, though he tried to get me to call him, “Kenny.” Despite efforts, I never more than once or twice during the two years that I was acquainted with Mr. Wolfe was able to call him “Kenny.” There was a certain comfort level that I felt went along with “Kenny” that I could never get used to. “Mr. Wolfe” is what I preferred, thereby not blurring the lines between “boss” and “me” that I preferred to keep.
Ken spent time in the Navy before coming to work for the City of New York, starting as an attorney somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty-three years ago to the best of my knowledge. When I arrived at the small office located within the most mocked borough in the whole City of New York, Ken held the title of Assistant Borough Chief of Staten Island. However, he also held the distinction of being the Acting Borough Chief. There was no one with the actual title of Borough Chief, nor had there been for more than a year prior to my arrival. The former Borough Chief had some serious illness that I was never completely privy to, but it was clear from all available sources that this person would not be returning to his position at any point.
Still, despite having acted as the de-facto Borough Chief for some lengthy amount of time prior to my arrival, Ken Wolfe had not been granted the in-fact title of Borough Chief. I don't know if he was ever given this title, and I don't know the reasons behind the delay. If there is one thing I have tried not to make it a habit of since taking my employment with the City, it would be questioning decisions of my superiors. That’s not to say I haven’t done so in the past and perhaps even often, I’m just saying I tried not to make it a habit, and that went doubly sure for my questions of Ken Wolfe.
Ken sometimes gave me assignments I couldn’t understand. It may have been because I was a “neophyte” as Ken often called me when I first arrived at the office. Not that I did everything right, because I didn’t (although I may have acted as though I did on more than one occasion). But in fairness to myself, defending a huge municipal bureaucracy is often difficult. Questions are not easily answered and accountability can be ephemeral. But trying to point these instances out to Mr. Wolfe often led to what I would characterize as “hostile relations.” I was not the only one who had such “hostile relations" with Mr. Wolfe.
Others who worked with Ken on occasion have described him as difficult, cryptic in his directions, and sometimes just plain wrong. I still recall Ken’s favorite method of assigning tasks: step out of your office for a few minutes and return to find a file with a yellow post-it note with a few words such as, “motion to dismiss.” No explanation, no rationale behind the instruction.
And a request for clarification was sometimes met with a hint of contempt; the same contempt you’d get if you’d try to make the motion, but did not address the legal issue Ken had in mind when he made his short instructions. And sometimes after a tense exchange regarding the merits of his assignments, occasionally he’d even admit to being wrong. But I always felt it was a tough road to get there.
Ken Wolfe was also a very opinionated man, and was not afraid to articulate his opinions to someone else, especially if that someone else disagreed with him. On occasion, his tone in expressing his opinions could have been misconstrued as hostile.
In fairness to Mr. Wolfe, anyone who knows me knows that I have similar tendencies. A colleague in Brooklyn who took offense when I was ribbing him at a Preliminary Conference about the merits of his action (that I found frivolous), indicated that I was “escalating the situation.” I felt myself grin a little, like the way Ken would grin back at me at me when he “got my dander up” as I heard him put it once.
I wonder if what I perceived as an "unmentioned riff," which I to this day I fully believe existed between Mr. Wolfe and myself, was perhaps a slight grudge at all the time Kenny got the best of me. To say the least, there were certain issues both related to work and not on which Mr. Wolfe and I could not see eye-to-eye, and on more than one occasion these points on which we could not agree became the subject of heated conversations between us.
The funny part is, I often enjoy impassioned debates with bright adversaries. I honestly believe that Ken felt the same way. But sometimes when having such fiery discussions with Ken, particularly on subjects regarding work (where Mr. Wolfe and I were technically on the same side), I often found myself a little conflicted, even disheartened.
In fact, I must admit that my relationship with Ken Wolfe was downright tense on occasion. I resented Ken sometimes for what I felt was harsh treatment or unfair criticisms. I still harbor the feeling that he alone was personally responsible for having me transferred out of the Staten Island office approximately two years after having been assigned there (which I felt was a slap in the face after having purchased a town home on Staten Island for, among other reasons, having a 10 minute commute to work and was now forced BACK onto the ferry for an hour long each-way daily commute once again).
In truth, I don’t know if this was Ken’s decision, and I don’t want to know the reasons anymore. Sometimes I wonder if my assignment-shuffle was done for the same reasons that Mr. Wolfe was denied his appropriate “Borough Chief” title all that time: did we both do something to annoy our employers? Maybe no one is paying attention to us?
But I want to make one thing clear about Ken Wolfe. Though I know many who felt a little tense around Ken Wolfe, those who took the time to listen to him, to know him, would say that he was a good person. I do not want it implied that Kenneth Wolfe was a mean spirited person. On the contrary: I do not believe that Mr. Wolfe desired ill will toward myself, or anyone else. I am of the opinion that “Kenny” was, on the inside, as kind a man as one could be. He often would bring sweets to the office and pass them around to co-workers, underlings, people in other offices in our building, the men that parked our cars in the garage below.
He loved to talk to people, and on a wide variety of subjects, and he almost always had an opinion. He was a great proponent of “Project Hospitality,” a community outreach program in Staten Island that helps the homeless, hungry and AIDS sufferers, and I recall his great pride in giving to that organization and accompanied him once on a drive down to one of their locations to drop off a large box of donations. I saw him buy coffee and food for one of the homeless women in the neighborhood on a regular basis. I recall vividly a several week ongoing discussion regarding a particular neighbor of Ken’s who had a dog tied out back on a very short leash every day, and Ken did not find the neighbor’s treatment of the dog suitable. He contemplated taking the dog and giving him to a better owner, amongst other schemes to help the animal. These, among other acts of kindness, are truly the signs of a caring man.
For me, probably the hardest thing about dealing with other people, especially co-workers, is when I just don’t get where they are coming from. This was especially the case when it came to Ken Wolfe. When I am close with another person, I often attempt to delve into that person’s psyche; to get a real sense of where that person’s beliefs stem from. In my experience, good indicators on which to understand another person are to explore their religious beliefs, political tendencies and their personal motivations.
Ken Wolfe was Jewish, but he admittedly did not conform to many of the constraints and norms that go along with Judaism. Ken Wolfe described himself as a Republican, and as I understand it, on at least one occasion he campaigned for a Judge’s position on Staten Island as a Republican, but was unsuccessful. Still, a talk with Mr. Wolfe on a host of controversial topics (many of which he and I had) led me to uncover several beliefs held by Ken that did not follow the Republican Party’s stance. Several of his views on social issues could have been described as so liberal that even Democrats may have had a hard time adopting stances held by Mr. Wolfe.
And insofar as personal motivations that drove Ken Wolfe, I’m afraid I have to chalk that up to a total loss. I do believe he had them, but I was never able to get my mind around them. Perhaps this is another fault of mine because I am still relatively young. A “neophyte” in terms of my adult existence. Perhaps its because each of these assessments of Mr. Wolfe could all equally be applied to me, except the Jewish part (I have no religion). But I understand my motivations and actions baffle many people, though it is not on purpose.
One thing about Ken Wolfe is certain: for thirty-plus years, he came into work more than regularly. Hell, he was like a machine. He took less time off from work than his doctor advised when he had to undergo surgery for prostate cancer. He would come in sometimes on days that he had taken as personal vacation days (something I really couldn’t understand). Although not confirmed, I have been told that Ken died as a result of leukemia, a disease he never told me about, never mentioned to anyone as far as I know, and yet he continued to come to work almost every day right up until he finally passed. Ken Wolfe did what he thought was right, generously gave back to his community and was a great advocate for the City of New York for over three decades.
As I look back on both the good and bad of my relationship with Ken Wolfe, I must admit that a lot of his behavior that I found off-putting are habits I follow today. I find myself leaving little post-it notes on files with directions for others. I engage people in heated debates if I feel they favor a position I oppose. The tone in my voice has a tendency to move toward hostile on some of these occasions, but I mean no harm. I acquired more habits from Ken in my time working for him than I may be comfortable admitting.
I was immensely saddened when I learned Ken had died suddenly on March 6, 2005, and personally felt as though I had sustained a great loss. Sure it may have been a grudge breathing its last breath, but there was a great deal of unadmitted admiration mixed up in there, too. Admiration for Ken Wolfe that I will carry throughout my own life. I’m sorry I never got a chance to tell him.
Hugh Kenneth Wolfe Esq. died on March 6, 2005. Beloved husband of Gloria. Loving father of Patricia and James Wolfe. Cherished son of Irene Levitt. Dear brother of Susan Hecht.
A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.
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3.21.05 @ 1:53p
Oh wow, what a moving tribute.
I've never had a mentor that I saw eye-to-eye with all the time. Nevertheless, I wouldn't trade any of them or anything they taught me. Years later, I find I often recall what and why they said/did what they said/did, and realize I am the better for it.
3.21.05 @ 2:03p
Thanks, Tracey. Ken was one of a kind. This was very unexpected.
I wrote this as a tribute and also as closure for myself. There were times I hoped he would leave me alone. Now I regret I didn't have a little more time.
3.21.05 @ 3:03p
This is a wonderful eulogy, largely because it shows the complexity of Mr. Wolfe. Too often I think that after someone passes, the tributes whitewash people until they all sound the same: loved their families, dedicated to their jobs, great person to be around who left too soon. This is a much more honest and appropriate way to honor someone.
Thanks for writing it.