The Death of a Giant
With the death of John F. Wolfe, Columbus closes an extraordinary era. The philanthropist and former publisher of the Dispatch was the last in the long line of Wolfe family members who wielded enormous influence over Columbus for more than 100 years. Quiet and statesmanlike, he worked behind the scenes for causes he believed in, and with his good friend and fellow Titan, L Brands founder Les Wexner, he helped create the collaborative corporate spirit that’s become known as the “Columbus Way” through the civic organization they co-founded, the Columbus Partnership.
Columbus Monthly has covered Wolfe and his family’s enduring influence since the magazine launched more than four decades ago. Most recently, we wrote about the civic upheaval that was caused as a result of Wolfe’s decision to sell the Dispatch and its sister publications, including Columbus Monthly, nearly a year ago. Late last year, one political leader called the power shift “probably the greatest time of change in recent memory” for the city.
Back then, many civic leaders hoped Wolfe would remain an active leader in Columbus. “I don’t sense any disengagement,” Abigail Wexner, the philanthropist and wife of Les Wexner, told Columbus Monthly. “He may say, ‘I’m gonna spend more time in Florida.’ But when he’s in Florida, he’s on the phone.” By early this year, however, it became clear that Wolfe wouldn’t be as active as his admirers had hoped, as his health quickly worsened.
A few more Wolfe highlights from the Columbus Monthly archives:
Power, June 2010:
Wolfe seemingly knows everything about Columbus and appears to be involved in almost every major project. He favors collaboration and rarely uses the paper as a whip to get his way. Except recently when he flexed some serious muscle after voters approved a statewide ballot in the fall that dropped a casino into the Arena District, in which Wolfe Enterprise has a 20 percent stake. The paper, through its editorial page and steady reporting, led the charge to force Penn National Gaming, a major casino operator, to reconsider and shift the gambling joint to the west side.
Power, October 2005:
While Wolfe is shy and reserved, he is not unapproachable. Last year, he good naturedly put up with teasing from people both inside and outside the newspaper about the Dispatch’s shifting from the right, especially when it blasted President Bush for his economic and foreign policies.
Death of the Titan, August 1994:
For nearly two decades, J.W. Wolfe [John F.’s second cousin] did what he wanted to do as the city’s Titan among titans. Aside from all the good he did, and it was considerable, what distinguished Wolfe was his love of power and control. That and the fact that he alone among the city’s powerful had both the means and the personality to achieve them.
Inside the Wolfe Empire, April 1986:
The Wolfes. In Columbus, the name says it all. For nine decades, the name has meant power, wealth, control . . . and mystery. As Columbus has grown from agricultural crossroads to major metropolis, the Wolfe family has remained, seemingly unshakable, atop the city’s power structure. Secretive and remote almost to the point of isolation, the Wolfe clan often has seemed like a huge, gray monolith, difficult to approach and even harder to understand; family members cling to their privacy like a life-support system.
(Photo: Adam Cairns)
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