Gregory Wolfe surveyed his audience of enthusiastic graduates and honorees when the first wave of emotion hit.
This address would be the Florida International University president’s last commencement speech. Wolfe, the school’s third president, guided FIU’s transition from a small, some said makeshift, two-year school into a full four-year university by 1981. During his seven year tenure, from 1979 to 1986, FIU saw its enrollment skyrocket. He also set the toughest freshman admission standards of any public university in Florida. He added graduate programs, student housing, and the School of Engineering, the School of Nursing and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“At a time like this you look back and ahead,” Wolfe said during the ceremony at the Miami Beach Convention Center in April 1986. “We’ve enlarged our size well over 50 percent. The faculty is bigger, and we have introduced more doctoral programs and established new schools.”
Indeed, Wolfe, who died at his Sunny Isles Beach home on Saturday just a month shy of his 94th birthday, left a major footprint on his adopted home.
“Gregory brought a level of cosmopolitan, global vision of things but he was a realist at the same time. He was very good at turning the impossible into the inevitable,” said current FIU President Mark Rosenberg. “He was the one who convinced the Legislature and Board of Regents to allow FIU to have a robust graduate program offering. He is the father of a lot of our graduate programs. The Latin American and Caribbean Studies program took off largely because of his presence and his contacts in Washington — he was a Washington insider for a time — and that really helped us.”
For Wolfe, a graduate of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, coming to Miami to lead FIU three years after its founding president Charles Perry left, was a bit of a surprise. Wolfe had already served as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. State Department and worked for the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. From 1968 to 1974, Wolfe served as president of Portland State University in Oregon. He was born to Russian immigrants on Jan. 27, 1922, in Los Angeles.
“I remember coming to visit when he was about to come and [FIU] was a little room on an empty airfield. It wasn’t much, wasn’t physically what it is today,” son Gregory Nelson Wolfe recalled. Today, the school has had a building named for his father, the recently renovated Wolfe University Center, on the Biscayne Bay Campus.
A wonderful bon vivant with a tremendous joie de vivre who knew how to live well and with laughter while contemplating and accomplishing serious things.
Son Gregory Nelson Wolfe about his father, Gregory Wolfe.
“When I came here I asked [myself] why was I coming,” Wolfe said in that 1986 commencement speech. “I said it was to see if it was possible to build a major public university in the tropics. I believe now the beginning has been made.”
Seven years earlier, FIU historian Tom Riley, an administrator at the university since it opened its doors to its first students in 1972, remembers an electric atmosphere when Wolfe took office.
“Greg brought a whole new tone to the university,” Riley said. “He looked like a movie star. He had the charisma of a John Kennedy and he was very bright. When he arrived there were great feelings of expectation of what he would do for the school — of which, he did a great deal.”
Riley, who worked for Wolfe as the school’s assistant dean of affairs and its first housing director when Wolfe brought dorms to the campuses in West Miami-Dade and North Miami, remembers when former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited the campus. Wolfe called Riley and told him to get the custodial staff together in his office. He wanted them to meet Kissinger before the school’s dignitaries took their turn.
He gave the university its heart, an emotion.
FIU historian Tom Riley on Gregory Wolfe.
“He gave the university its heart, an emotion,” Riley said.
Earlier, before high-profile speaking engagements Wolfe orchestrated including jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, with whom Wolfe danced, and Jihan Sadat, widow of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Wolfe lamented that FIU had no activities for students on campus. He changed that by holding cultural events and tapping his connections.
Wolfe, who taught international relations at FIU after his presidency, even moved into a student dorm with his wife, Mary Ann, for the first week that the apartments opened on the north campus. Riley recalls the opening ceremony. “He wanted to get housing opened so badly we were rushing the last few weeks as we were bringing students in.”
So much so, Riley chuckles at the memory, that the paint wasn’t yet dry in the lobby.
Said daughter Laura Ann: “Our father was a sophisticated, charming and erudite man with great energy, curiosity and passion for life. What I will treasure the most was his capacity to open his kind and listening heart.”
In addition to his wife, Mary Ann, Wolfe is survived by children Laura Ann, Gregory Nelson and Melissa Helene Wolfe; grandchildren Galen Nelson and Anna Wolfe Pauly and Marie Elise Wolfe-Callahan; and great-grandchild Ko Sugihara Pauly. Funeral services will be private. A memorial service is planned for January at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus.
Charismatic and elegant, Dr. Wolfe and his lovely wife, former FIU first lady Mary Ann Wolfe, helped move the university forward at a time when it was still the new kid on the block. We, the FIU family, have lost one of our own: a visionary leader equally at home hobnobbing with heads of state, serving breakfast to FIU students — which he and Mary Ann were known to do — and dancing with the late Ella Fitzgerald when she visited campus in the 1980s. It is our great fortune that he served us so well.
FIU President Mark Rosenberg.