September 13, 1923 – February 10, 2017
Lester M. Wolfson, Chancellor Emeritus of Indiana University South Bend died on February 10, 2017. He was 93.
Between every birth and death, flow people, accomplishments, and experiences.To describe a fraction of these is hardly possible in a book, let alone a newspaper tribute. So below, if not a complete portrait, is a light sketch of the man known by many monikers: Lester, Les, Chancellor Wolfson, Dr. Wolfson, Daddy, Dad, Grandpa, and Sweetheart.
As many of their generation, his parents, Bess and William Wolfson had limited formal education. Nonetheless their innate intellectual gifts and talents passed on to their children. Lester, the eldest of three, inherited his father’s interest in numbers. Beyond a strong mathematical ability, Lester’s numerical fascination revealed itself in a passion for statistics of all kinds, notably baseball. His mother’s flair for writing, evident in family letters, contributed to his all consuming love for language—a love that ultimately evolved into a career choice.
After receiving his Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Michigan (and later in his career an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Indiana University) he became a professor, teaching at Wayne State University, the University of Houston, Indiana’s Northwest Campus in Gary, the University of Chicago’s Downtown Center, and at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Fortunately for his children, Lester’s passion for literature was not confined to the classroom. After dinner he often recited poems from the vast library in his head.
His love of language and deep veneration for poets also enriched the faculty addresses he delivered at IUSB as Chancellor. Even when reporting on mundane topics he made ample use of the poet’s tools. This talent, combined with his well-known oratorical skills, inclusive leadership style, and view that the university should not only be a career steppingstone but also a place where mind and spirit could blossom, proved irresistible to donors, community members, and the Indiana University faculty and administration. After he retired, the pivotal role he played in developing the campus and laying the foundation for its future growth was detailed in the book A Campus Becoming: Lester M. Wolfson and Indiana University South Bend 1964-1987
In addition to literature, he was a tireless advocate for the arts, above all music. Whether listening to a performance of the resident string quartet he helped establish or to classical CDs on his beloved Bose, his face took on a concentrated, almost otherworldly look. Even in his last days, the music of Mozart, Puccini, and Schubert provided solace and comfort.
He wasn’t always an easy man. But beneath his occasional impatience, lay tremendous respect for people. His yardstick was decency and goodness, not social status or net worth. In his eyes, the powerful and the powerless were equal travellers on this planet. And he hated all forms of injustice.
He never could grasp how a country as wealthy as the United States could allow people to live in poverty or how, prior to the Voting Rights Act in 1965, state and local laws prevented African-Americans from exercising their constitutional right. As one story goes, when the Klu Klux Klan gathered at a local library in Gary, Indiana in the early Sixties, he showed up and loudly proclaimed their racist views “a stench in the nostrils of God.” This would be brave for any person, let alone a clearly Jewish man of modest physical build.
Though Lester identified as a secular Jew, he was ever curious about theodicy. In a lifelong pursuit of answers to the problem of evil in light of God’s existence, he read the foundational works of his own heritage, notably the Hebrew Bible, as well as Dante’s Paradiso, C.S. Lewis, and Cardinal Newman. After a lifetime of searching, he finally identified as an agnostic Jew who believed that spirit revealed itself in the beauty of the natural world, great music, and above all, human kindness.
Lester was not only wise in choosing his career. He was also wise in choosing his two life partners, gravitating towards women he believed reflected the better part of his nature.
In 1949, he married Esther née Evans, drawn to her keen mind and graceful nature. After Esther died at the age of 79 in 2003, he married Frances Savett who shared Esther’s musical gifts, love of reading, and bedrock belief in the primacy of family.
Lester also adored babies and children. As an older man, he would often comment on the charm and beauty of the “little ones” he encountered in public places. The birth of his own grandchildren, Catherine Rose and Daniel William, was met with glee, and he unfailingly attended their recitals and concerts. Even on December nights he would head out into the frigid air, determined not to miss his granddaughter’s annual Nutcracker ballet performance, though more often than not it meant braving roads sheeted in black ice.
And though like many men of his generation he was not overly involved with domestic duties, he had a unique ability to transform ordinary family excursions—a summer drive, a trip to the lake, a restaurant meal —into colorful adventures. Cautious by nature, he worried incessantly about the safety of his three children. He’d inspect every new swing set to be sure the legs were properly grounded and when he took his 2 daughters and son shopping for shoes, he’d press down on the tips to be sure young toes were not cramped. Arms stretched out of car windows received a stern rebuke.
And then there was his sense of humor. Wry and witty to the core, he delighted in sharing his vast repertoire of jokes, a trait that endeared him to public and private audiences alike.
Lester was predeceased by his brother Irving Wolfson and his sister Sylvia Katz. He is survived by his children Alice Wolfson of Bloomington, Indiana; Margaret Wolfson of New York City; George (Colette) Wolfson of South Bend, Indiana; his grandchildren Catherine Wolfson (Pete) of Nashville, Tennessee; Daniel (Colleen) Wolfson of Granger, Indiana; wife Frances Wolfson of Utica, New York; and 11 nieces and nephews.
The family sends special thanks to the caregivers who tended Lester during the final stage of his journey: Irene Kangai who gracefully assisted him at the Waterford and the compassionate nurses and CNAs at Sanctuary at Holy Cross St. Joseph.
To send condolences or for directions log onto: www.McGannHay.com.
In lieu of flowers, donations should be sent to the Wolfson Literary Awards (www.myiu.org) or the Southern Poverty Law Center (www.splcenter.org). Services will be family only with a public memorial in the near future.
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade
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