The Wolfes have been at the top of the city's power structure since the turn of the century; in 1903, they bought their first newspaper. Today, their influence is enormous.
These stories appeared in the April 1986 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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.
Today the Wolfes are as firmly rooted in the city's power base as ever, perhaps commanding an even stronger voice now that their Columbus Dispatch is the city's only daily paper. The current family patriarch, John Walton Wolfe, has begun flexing Wolfe muscle in some new and intriguing ways, taking a more visible role in deciding what gets done-and what doesn't. The city's first civic commandment remains intact: Don't buck the Wolfes.
Beneath the business-as-usual façade, though, there are some unprecedented cracks and fissures. For the first time a sizable block of stock in Wolfe-owned corporations-stock worth an estimated $15 million-is up for grabs. A young Wolfe, Edgar T. III, died of AIDS last year in San Francisco. The public disclosure of his death surely embarrassed John Walton Wolfe and his cousin, Dispatch publisher John Frederick Wolfe. But Eddie's final, defiant act-writing a will that left the bulk of his estate to a non-Wolfe half sister-has embroiled the family in ugly public litigation. (See "Eddie's legacy.")
The lawsuits also have focused attention on what could be an even more serious problem-the lack of an obvious line of succession. John W. Wolfe is 57; his cousin John F. is 42. They are the only two family members in positions of real power in Wolfe enterprises. Many younger Wolfes-including John W.'s own children-have dropped out or shown no interest in running the family empire. Some have moved to California and Texas. The Wolfe generation-in-waiting stands to inherit enormous wealth-and enormous challenges. Inheritance tax laws may make it difficult to keep some business in the family. For the first time, there seems a real possibility that the Wolfe empire may be on the verge of splintering.
And an empire it is. Open your morning or Sunday Dispatch, and you're reading a product of the Wolfes. Dial Eyewitness News on Channel 10-the city's most powerful television station-and you're hearing a product of the Wolfes. Even the station's call letters, WBNS, stand for Wolfe Banks, News and Shoes, the original cornerstones of the family empire. The Wolfes abandoned the shoe business decades ago, and recently sold their significant interest in BancOhio Corp., somewhat diluting their financial power. But their other assets remain impressive:The Ohio Company, Central Ohio's largest brokerage and investment banking house, has nearly $100 million in assets and a net worth of nearly $50 million. John W. Wolfe, the Ohio Company's chairman, oversees all major family enterprises from his office in the BancOhio building at 155 E. Broad St. The Ohio Company specializes in large public and corporate bond offerings, frequently underwriting deals worth tens of millions. Strategically located commercial and industrial real estate, including the Dispatch and University Club building on Capitol Square (valued for tax purposes at about $13 million) and hundreds of acres of prime commercial development land in northwestern Franklin County. Through the Ohio Company, the Wolfes also own Ohio Equities Inc., a prominent commercial real estate firm. More than 5,500 acres of farmland in Madison and Clark counties, just west of Columbus. The corporation that owns this land, Agricultural Lands Inc., is said to be the largest property owner in Madison County. Family members also own substantial private retreats southeast of Reynoldsburg (the Wigwam) and on Buckeye Lake (Journal Island). A family foundation, Wolfe Associates, has distributed $4 million to charities since 1973; and Dispatch Charities, a corporate fund-raising arm, sponsors annual events such as the Home & Garden Show at the Ohio State Fairgrounds.
The list goes on. The Wolfes own an NBC network affiliate TV station in Indianapolis, the WBNS radio stations in Columbus, a recently formed insurance company, the monthly Ohio Magazine. Family members, John W. Wolfe in particular, also make substantial personal investments-in restaurants, real estate, media and high-tech companies. Forbes magazine's estimate that the Wolfe family collectively is worth more than $300 million may be conservative. The Dispatch and WBNS-TV alone may be worth that much.
But it's more than just wealth that gives the Wolfes their power and their mystique. It's their reputation for secrecy, for hard-nosed, back-room dealing, for political kingmaking, for refusing to conform to some of the conventions of "polite" society. Other families-Galbreath, Lazarus, Jeffrey-seem to develop a kind of public bonding over the years, to become almost community property. Not the Wolfes. Sometimes it seems the more the family does for the city-and its contributions have been considerable-the more mistrusted it becomes.
John W. Galbreath will speak to any organization that asks. John W. Wolfe says he's made only one public speech in his life, when he received the city's Christopher Columbus award a few years ago. Bob Lazarus's picture appears in the Dispatch regularly. It's rare to see a photo of any Wolfe family member. For a family that dominates Columbus media, the Wolfes are conspicuously loath to publicize themselves or their activities.
Do the Wolfes simply value their privacy? Or do they use their media to suppress otherwise newsworthy stories? Why did the Dispatch fail to mention the lawsuits over Eddie Wolfe's estate until after the Cleveland Plain Dealer broke the story? Is it healthy, in a metropolitan area of 1.3 million people, for one family to be so dominant … and so secretive? Or should the current Wolfes be commended for following an old family motto: "Self praise is half slander"?
It isn't just secrecy that distinguishes the Wolfe family. Wolfe men tend to marry more than once. (A notable exception in the current generation is Dispatch publisher John Frederick, who remains married to his high-school sweetheart.) Their divorces are sometimes acrimonious. John W. Wolfe's legal battles with his first wife went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court and set precedents in state domestic law. In four generations, no Wolfe woman-spouse or child-has ever assumed an important role in a family enterprise.
Wolfe men tend to look alike-short, thickset and balding. Even among the exceptions, there's an unmistakable Wolfe caste. Some Wolfes, such as retired Dispatch publisher Preston, live productively into old age. Others suffer violent deaths-one in a plane crash, one in a car wreck, one in a fall from the fifth floor of the Dispatch building.
And through it all, the mystique remains. It runs straight back to the 19th century, when two Wolfe brothers set out to make their fortunes in Columbus. And it continues today, in speculation about the family's future and its current legal battles, rumors that disaffected younger Wolfes might try to force changes in the family hierarchy. It's impossible to talk seriously about Columbus-past, present or future-without talking about the Wolfes.***
The Wolfe story begins not in Columbus but in Cumberland, Maryland, the birthplace of a cobbler named Andrew Jackson Wolfe, who fought on the Union side in the Civil War. Andrew Jackson and his wife, Nancy Barton Wolfe, a staunch Presbyterian, moved about Eastern Ohio, trying to earn enough in the shoemaking trade to raise six children. One of those children, Robert F., left home while still in his teens, in the 1870s. Robert is said to have worked on a canal boat, sold newspapers on the streets of New York City, sailed to Cuba, labored in Louisiana swamps and herded cattle in Texas.
Rumors have circulated for years that Robert served time in prison for killing a man during his rambling period. Author John Gunther declared in Inside America that Robert learned the shoemaking trade in prison. But Robert's nephew Preston, the family historian, tells a different story. Robert did go to prison, Preston has told other family members, but only briefly, on a questionable charge of assault, never for murder. While in jail, Preston says, Robert was befriended by a jailkeeper. After Robert made his fortune in Columbus, he is said to have paid for the education of the jailkeeper's daughter, and even to have left money to her in his will. It's just the kind of private, personal beneficence that seems typical of the Wolfe family.
In his late twenties, Robert settled in Columbus and soon became a top salesman for the H.C. Godman Shoe Company. Meanwhile, his brother Harry, 12 years younger, stayed home and learned an almost Puritan work ethic. Harry sold newspapers, painted houses and-at age 15-became the village lamplighter of Corning, Ohio. Every night Harry lit the lamps; every morning he extinguished them; on Saturdays he cleaned the globes. In two years, his obituary later would say, he never missed a day.
In 1890 Harry joined Robert at H.C. Godman. After work, the brothers operated a side business: Harry made shoes and Robert sold them. Before long, with $500 in borrowed money, they quit Godman and set up the Wolfe Brothers Shoe Company in a rented room on Spring Street, across the street from the Chittenden Hotel. Two other brothers, Charles and Edgar Wolfe, were early partners, but later left to form their own shoe company.
In less than a decade, Wolfe Brothers Shoe Company grew to employ 800 people. From manufacturing shoes, the brothers diversified to retailing, forming a chain of shoe stores called Wolfe Wear-U-Well, which survived until the late 1950s.
Using profits from the shoe business, the brothers next moved into newspaper publishing. In 1903, they outmaneuvered a congressman from Steubenville, J.J. Gill, and bought the Ohio State Journal. Both the Wolfes and Gill were Republicans, but Harry and Robert harbored an abiding dislike for the congressman and his wing of the party. In 1905, the Wolfe brothers used a front-Chicago newspaper owner John C. Eastman-to trick Gill into selling his own Columbus paper, the Columbus Dispatch. Eastman, a former Columbus resident, bought the Dispatch from Gill for $275,000, but immediately resold it to the Wolfe brothers, infuriating Gill.
Owning both the Journal and the Dispatch, the Wolfe brothers became Republicans to be reckoned with. In later years, they supported Teddy Roosevelt, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Harding, a native of Marion, Ohio, was said to spend considerable time at the Wigwam, the Wolfe retreat a few miles southeast of Reynoldsburg. The Wolfes also supported Woodrow Wilson until he disappointed them by backing the League of Nations when they favored an isolationist foreign policy. Harry Wolfe particularly despised the New Deal policies of Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression, believing Roosevelt's social reforms would turn the country toward socialism.
Long before the New Deal, the Wolfe brothers had ventured into capitalism's inner sanctum: banking. During a banking crisis in 1907, the Ohio Trust Company was about to close its doors. Perhaps to protect some earlier investments, the Wolfes injected another $100,000 into the failing institution. They later used that money as leverage to gain control.
According to the unpublished reminiscences of one former employee, Robert Wolfe "considered the [banking] business stodgy and even dangerous." But the brothers didn't let such opinions stand in the way of good business. From later mergers and acquisitions emerged the Wolfe-controlled BancOhio Corporation, formed as Ohio's first bank holding company in 1929. Until the late 1970s, when it began to be challenged by aggressive competitors, BancOhio remained Columbus's largest and most powerful banking organization.
Harry was the less gregarious brother, guarding his privacy and avoiding publicity. He never made a public speech and rarely attended community events. He worked long hours and was meticulous about details like keeping a clean, orderly desk. He read extensively and often quoted Shakespeare and classical works. It was Harry who coined the motto, "Self praise is half slander."
Harry's idea of a good time was to invite family and friends to a dinner he had planned and prepared himself at the Wigwam, where the Wolfes often entertained politicians and celebrities and sometimes made business deals. Harry played a powerful role in downtown development projects and served on the first Federal Reserve Board, the national bank regulatory agency, from 1913 to 1921.
Robert cut a much more public swath. In 1913, during the worst flood in Columbus history, Robert organized a flotilla of boats to rescue stranded residents. His heroism earned him a commission as a commodore in the Ohio Naval Reserve, and he proudly flew his commodore's flag on his yacht at Buckeye Lake.
Robert served on the Columbus Planning Commission and donated land east of Alum Creek for a city park, known today as Wolfe Park. Both brothers were generous to employees whose loyalty they trusted, often handing out large Christmas bonuses and paying hospital bills. But when four or five employees withdrew money from a Wolfe-owned bank during a run, Harry fired or blackballed them. And once, according to a former employee, Robert found all was not in order as he inspected the contents of a safe-deposit box. Drawing a revolver and placing it on the table, Robert declared, "No one leaves this room until the mistake is found."
Secretive and suspicious of outsiders, the brothers were intensely loyal to each other. In the early 1920s Harry, stricken by a critical illness, lay bedridden for 15 months. Robert, a former employee later recalled, "gave devoted attention. Against the order of physicians, he secretly fed his brother nourishing food, often prepared personally, including, of all things, corn on the cob." After Harry recovered, he faced medical bills of $100,000. Robert apparently wanted to help pay the debt. One day he dropped an envelope on Harry's desk; it contained $50,000.
Robert fell to his death from the fifth floor of the Dispatch building in 1927, at the age of 66. Newspaper accounts said he complained of feeling ill, opened the window and fell. Rumors persisted for years that Robert had jumped, but officially his death has always been considered an accident.
Robert was married twice, but had only one child, a son named Edgar, who assumed an important role in family affairs after his father's death. Harry and Edgar dominated the family as equal partners until Harry's death in 1946.
Harry Wolfe wasn't afraid to play hardball in any venture. By the end of the 1920s the Columbus Citizen, owned by Scripps Howard, and the Wolfe-owned Dispatch and Journal were the only significant newspapers in Columbus. The competition was often fierce and never friendly. In 1931 the Citizen's flamboyant coverage of a Depression banking crisis and the private affairs of a Columbus judge enraged Harry Wolfe. He retaliated by yanking all advertising by Wolfe businesses from the Citizen and cutting the street-sales price of the Dispatch from two cents to one.
The Citizen's editors struck back with front-page editorials, including one comparing Harry Wolfe to Mussolini. But Harry never wavered. And his battle plan succeeded. Dispatch advertising increased, Citizen circulation fell, and the Dispatch soon established dominance. When Harry Wolfe died of kidney disease at the age of 73 in 1946, he still despised the Citizen, believing it had been in some measure responsible for Columbus's worst banking crisis.
On Harry's death his nephew Edgar-Robert's son-assumed family leadership, setting the stage for the later dominance of Edgar's own sons, John Walton and Edgar Jr. Harry's three sons-Robert, Richard and Preston-all became active in family businesses. But among them, they controlled only about half of the Wolfe stock. Edgar, Harry's nephew, but full partner since 1927, was the family strongman. (See "A Wolfe family tree.")
In some ways Edgar was ahead of his time. He lobbied hard for a commercial airport in Columbus when aviation was still considered risky business. Col. Charles Lindbergh came to Columbus at Edgar's invitation to endorse an airport, and soon after, voters approved a bond issue to build Port Columbus.
Edgar also was a key member of the Metropolitan Committee, an informal group powerful enough to approve or veto almost any public project. Without the Metropolitan Committee's support, it was said, no highway, hospital or public building could be built in Columbus.
Edgar was publisher of the Dispatch, but avoided personal publicity and rarely spoke in public. "Edgar could be very kind to loyal friends and employees," recalls an acquaintance, "but he was hard to understand. You would go before him to present a plan and he would sit at the end of the table and not say more than three words. When you were done, you'd leave, not knowing what he thought. And you never did until you read about the plan in the newspaper."
Edgar loved boats and kept them not only at his summer home on Journal Island in Buckeye Lake, but on the Florida coast and Lake Erie. He loved music, often entertaining friends on the piano or electric organ. And he seems to have loved women: He married five times, to four women. He married Eve May Dale twice. In 1952 both signed a prenuptial agreement before the second marriage, specifying what she would be entitled to if the marriage ended. Edgar died of cancer at age 63 in 1957. He was survived by two sons, Edgar Jr. and John Walton; an adopted daughter, Pamela, and a stepdaughter, Jill Dale. A third son, Robert F. II, had been killed in an auto accident in 1943, at the age of 19.
As Columbus had expanded dramatically after World War II, so had the Wolfe enterprises. The Dispatch increased its dominance until the Citizen was forced, in 1959, to merge with the Wolfes' morning Journal and become the weaker partner in a joint operating agreement that lasted until the end of 1985. WBNS-TV began broadcasting in 1949 and, with the resources of the Dispatch behind it, soon dominated the local television market. BancOhio's Ohio National Bank likewise dominated the Columbus financial scene. Only the Wolfe Wear-U-Well shoe business was in decline, and it had long since become a relatively small part of the family empire.
"The Wolfes had all the power prior to World War II," recalls one civic leader. "Then Columbus began to grow after the war and more families got involved. But the Wolfes still had veto power. The talk around town was that if you wanted something done, you had to have it cleared with the Wolfes. It may have been a myth, but that is what people thought. And in those days, to get a call from the Wolfes was like word from God."
Did the Wolfes really control Columbus? Consider what happened in 1958 to a popular TV anchorman named Bill Jorgensen. Jorgensen like to spice his newscasts for WTVN-TV with brief commentaries. One night he discoursed pointedly on a mythical "Jackal family" that supposedly dominated a Midwestern city. It was Jorgensen's last broadcast in Columbus; three days later, WTVN fired him for "poor taste." Rumor had it that even though the Wolfes didn't own WTVN (Taft Broadcasting did), they had flexed their muscle to have him fired.
Jorgensen went on to newscasting jobs in Cleveland and New York. Now retired, he still believes the Wolfes ran him out of Columbus. "Yes, of course," he says. "There's no doubt they had some influence." Whether the Wolfes used their influence or not seems almost beside the point. People thought they had ordered Jorgensen fired; the perception alone was intimidating.
With the death of Edgar Wolfe in 1957, seniority in the family fell to two of Harry's sons: Robert and Preston. Their brother, Richard-a lover of music who tended to the family's banking operations-died of an illness while on a vacation cruise in 1953. Says Richard's son, Dick, "If he had had a career choice, he would have been a band leader."
Robert H. Wolfe, Harry's oldest son, became publisher of the Dispatch; his brother, Preston, became president of the Dispatch Printing Company. Robert was a rotund, jovial man who loved the Shriners, the F.B.I. (he was a personal friend of J. Edgar Hoover), hunting, fishing, travel and photography. He was a strong supporter of the Columbus Zoo, which had begun in the 1920s when the Dispatch Printing Company gave the city seven Alaskan reindeer and offered to build shelters for them.
Robert was "a very nice man, and friendly," recalls Dr. Jud Wilson, a longtime family friend. "He would give money away to many things, but never wanted anyone to know about it." Robert wasn't a socialite. One retired civic leader recalls sitting near him at a Symphony Ball. Apparently displeased by the pretentiousness of the black-tie affair, Robert wrote "Bullshit" on a program and left abruptly. "Everyone," recalls the observer, "was horrified."
Robert, who died at the age of 81 in 1981 of kidney disease, married four times and had two sons, Michael Lambert Wolfe and William Culver Wolfe. Bill, about 25 years older than his half brother Mike, became a vice president of the Dispatch Printing Company before dying of a blood disease in 1973, at the age of 47. Mike, now 33, is Dispatch production manager.
Robert's brother Preston took the newspaper business seriously. Unlike Robert, who paid little attention to the Dispatch's editorial content, Preston often read every word in the paper. A shy man who avoided social events, he would sometimes stroll through the Dispatch newsroom, asking reporters and editors about stories that interested him. Retired since 1973, Preston, 80, still maintains an office in the University Club building next door to the Dispatch. He is an avid historian with an amazing grasp of early Columbus lore.
Preston Wolfe married twice-his first wife, Eugenia Sheppard, became one of the country's most influential fashion writers in the 1950s-and had two children, Nancy and John Frederick. John F. Wolfe, now 42, is publisher of the Dispatch and president of the Dispatch Printing Company.
But the dominant role in the family for the past two decades has fallen not to John F.-or any other descendant of Harry Wolfe-but to John Walton Wolfe, 57, the most powerful heir of Robert Wolfe. Not yet 30 when his father Edgar died in 1957, John Walton understood that he and his brother, Edgar Jr., could always hold the balance of power. Their father had inherited roughly half the family financial interests; their older brother, Robert F. II, had been killed in an auto accident at 19. That left John W. and Edgar Jr. in control of half the Wolfe assets, while the other half was spread among the families of Harry P. Wolfe's three sons.
John W. was a stronger personality than his brother, although Edgar Jr. was three years older. During the 1960s, working from the executive offices of Ohio National Bank, John W. came to dominate family business councils. By his 40th birthday he seemed to be in full control-as he has been ever since.
Thrusting John W. to the forefront was a stunning and tragic accident that killed his brother, Edgar Jr. Ed, as his friends called him, had spent his career at the Wolfe papers, becoming publisher and chairman of the Dispatch Printing Company when Preston retired in 1973. Then in 1975, Ed, at age 49, died along with prominent civic leader Fred LeVeque and lawyer Carlton Dargusch Jr. when a Wolfe Industries plane crashed into a television tower near Washington, D.C. The deaths shocked the community and dominated the news. (Later, a suit filed in the name of LeVeque's widow, Katherine, and their five children charged Wolfe Industries with negligence. The case, however, eventually was dismissed.)
More easygoing than John W., Ed Jr. liked to hunt, fish and entertain. "I remember him more as an outdoorsman than I do as a businessman," says his daughter, Amy. She recalls her father picking her up after school and taking her to help tend to the cattle and ducks on his farm-called Lobo Land and Cattle-near Buckeye Lake.
Ed Jr. married twice and had four children: Edgar III and Elisa by his first wife, Marilyn; and Andrew and Amy by his second wife, Carolyn. After her divorce from Ed Jr., Marilyn remarried and had another daughter, Jane Scott, who has become the focal point of the current family legal battles.
Ed's death left John W. as the ruling kingpin of the family fortune. Today, he directs business affairs from his positions as chairman of the Dispatch Printing Company and chairman of the Ohio Company, having moved there in the 1970s after federal banking regulators-concerned about possible conflicts of interest-were able to force John W. off the BancOhio board of directors. (However, John W.'s cousin, John Frederick, retained a Wolfe influence on the BancOhio board by assuming a seat, and remains today on the board of National City Corp., which acquired BancOhio in 1984.)
At the Ohio Company, John W. appears to ascribe to the Autocratic Oath of management style; he's clearly in control and lets others know it. During a trip to Italy, he bought several ashtrays depicting the story of Romulus and Remus-twin brothers suckled by a she-wolf. Back at the Ohio Company, John W. distributed the ashtrays to certain employees as a reminder of who "feeds" them.
Unlike some of his more reticent relatives, John W. hasn't hesitated to use his power. Within the past decade he has:Used the Dispatch to help defeat a tax levy for the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) because he was angry at Will Hellerman, a Nationwide Insurance executive who was then COTA's chairman. Persuaded Gov. James Rhodes, a close political ally, to eliminate Ohio's health planning agencies. Wolfe was angry at the Mid-Ohio Health Planning Federation and its director, Gordon Labuhn, for opposing his plan to build a $40 million cancer research hospital at Ohio State University. Resigned in 1984 from the University Hospitals board of trustees, citing his dissatisfaction with hospital administration and the huge sums earned by doctors in private practice there. Dr. Larry Carey, a principal target of Wolfe's ire, was soon forced to resign as chairman of OSU's department of surgery. OSU's practice plan has since been revamped. Resigned from the board of Battelle Commons, the not-for-profit corporation formed to build and operate the Ohio Center, because he was angry at its director, Clyde Tipton. Wolfe said he believed the project was being incompetently managed. Tipton was replaced as director of the Ohio Center.
"The perception is," says Gordon Labuhn, "that if you disagree with John W., it may not be a wise thing to let him know about it. It could come back to haunt you in a variety of ways." In Wolfe's battle with Mid-Ohio, Labuhn says, Wolfe "fought fair, was never dishonest. Once he made up his mind, he would listen, but the firmer he got, the more he would lose his objectivity. He has a lot of things to do, and he can't take as long to make decisions as others do. So, when he makes a decison, he sets it in concrete quicker than most people."
It's generally said that John W. doesn't take himself or his role in Columbus as seriously as does his cousin, John F. But when he makes a move or takes a stand, he always aims to win. Like all the Wolfes before him, John W. generally avoids the cocktail party circuit and disdains charity fund-raisers and other mass social events.
It's this kind of aloof, sometimes almost antisocial attitude that gives John W. much of his reputation. Some portray him as ruthless, quick-tempered, vindictive and constantly suspicious that others are out to take advantage of him.
Others, though, say Wolfe can be warm, even charming-and as true a friend as anyone could want. Granted, they say, he is a little rough around the edges, but he also is exceedingly loyal and often generous. "He's down-to-earth, totally unpretentious," says shopping center developer Dick Solove, who's both a friend and an investment partner. "It's staggering to think of all he has done for the community, which doesn't know anything about it. I bet he spends just as much time on his philanthropic endeavors as he does on business."
Others say John W. is really a homebody. He lived quietly in central Bexley in a relatively modest house whose $230,000 tax valuation makes it barely average for the neighborhood. His favorite pastimes, friends and relatives say, are gardening and cooking, and he's been known to prepare elaborate gourmet dinners, complete with such garnishes as squash, cut into pieces that spell "Go Bucks! Beat Michigan!"
John W.'s second marriage, to Norina Lovelace, seems stable. His first, to Jo Ann Wallace, ended in 1968 in one of the most bitter divorce cases in Ohio history. They battled over custody of their four children, over child support, over alimony. She took him to court for back payments; he alleged she reneged on part of a bank loan. At one point he sent her a letter calling her a "gold digger." Eventually John W. stopped paying alimony, claiming Jo Ann was living with a man out of wedlock, just so he, John W., would still be required to support her. John W. won the case before the Ohio Supreme Court, setting a precedent that still prevails in Ohio Law and is studied by Ohio law students. To this day, Jo Ann Wallace Wolfe is said to despise her former husband.
In recent years John W. has become more active-and more open-in participating in civic decisions. He surprised the city's charity leaders by agreeing to take a seat on the Columbus Foundation's board of governors. "That wouldn't have happened 10 years ago," says one associate. John W. also is a member of the Columbus Capital Corporation, a not-for-profit group established at the behest of Mayor Rinehart to encourage civic projects. Each member is required to chip in $50,000 to be used to promote projects such as the Columbus New World Center. One observer says John W. always comes to meetings thoroughly prepared, asking tough questions of other members or public officials who haven't done their homework.
There is speculation over John W.'s relationships with his four children-all by Jo Ann, who now lives in Arizona and runs a ceramics shop called The Wolfe's Den. None of the children-Ann, Victoria (Tory), Douglas and Robert F. III-work in any Wolfe enterprise, although all are adults. Ann attends college in Minnesota; Tory operates a My Nails salon in Columbus; Douglas wants to open a restaurant, to be called El Lobo Charbroil, in Grandview; Robert III once worked for WBNS-TV, but left the station in the 1970s.
John W. also has a black stepdaughter, Nadine Allen, a product of Italian-born Norina's marriage to an American GI after World War II. John W. paid for Nadine Allen's education, and in 1985 she became the first female black municipal judge in Hamilton County.
John W. is said to be close, these days, to his niece, Amy, one of Edgar Jr.'s four children. Amy recently built a $280,000 home in the same small Bexley compound as John W.'s, and she is supporting her uncle's position in the lawsuits arising from the death of her half-brother, Edgar III.
Next in command of family affairs behind John W. is his cousin, John Frederick, who has spent his career at the paper. John F., 42, became publisher of the Dispatch after Edgar Jr.'s death in 1975.
He is said to take both his job and his role in the community very seriously. John F. has been a diligent member of several boards-the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, St. Ann's Hospital, Columbus School for Girls-and seems to have inherited his father Preston's sense of noblesse oblige.
Like Preston, John F. dislikes public speaking, though he does it more often than John W. Bob Johnson, now publisher of Newsday on Long Island, New York, was vice president and general manager of the Dispatch from 1974 to 1982. "John is one of the brightest, nicest and sincerest people to work for," Johnson says. "He is very private, but inherited an awesome amount of responsibility. He doesn't want the notoriety of letting people know what he has done for the community." Does it worry John F. that the Wolfes are often criticized for being too private, too secretive? "I think it bothers John F. personally," says Johnson, "but he realizes that that is the price of operating in the [Wolfe's] traditional way."
Married since college days to the former Ann Isaly, John F. has three daughters, all still in college or high school. His sister, Nancy Barton Wolfe, once worked at the Dispatch and has two children from a marriage that ended in divorce.
Only one other third-generation Wolfe has held an important role in a family business- Richard M. Now a trim and youthful-looking 52, Dick Wolfe joined WBNS-TV after two unhappy years at Ohio National Bank. "It became quite clear that I was not cut out to be a banker," he recalls. "I was not really happy in that environment."
Dick's real love was-and remains-electronics. He rose through technical and management jobs at WBNS-TV, becoming president in 1971. But he quit abruptly in 1978 and moved to California, triggering considerable speculation that he had had a falling-out with his cousin, John W. It was John W. Wolfe, the rumors went, who had recruited Gene D'Angelo, the general manager of a Taft Broadcasting station in Buffalo, to return to his hometown as general manager of WBNS-TV. And although Dick Wolfe was nominally D'Angelo's boss, media gossip had it that the tough-talking D'Angelo actually reported to the equally tough-talking John W. Dick Wolfe, in other words, had been sidetracked.
Dick Wolfe himself tells the story quite differently. "My departure to California was of my own motion," he says. He had become unhappy, he acknowledges, with the changing nature of television station management, from fostering technological advances to "the selling of time." The continuing technological explosion in and around Los Angeles-especially in satellite communications-lured him. Secondly, Dick says, he was in the midst of a heated divorce. All things considered, he decided, 1978 "was a good time if I was going to make a career change."
Whatever the motivation, the result of Dick Wolfe's departure was to consolidate John W. Wolfe's control of family interests even more firmly. D'Angelo doesn't hesitate to speak his mind when he disagrees with the boss, but he and John W. are much more natural allies than John W. and Dick, who was always considered something of a family iconoclast, if not an outright black sheep. Rightly or wrongly, he was seen as more liberal, more open and friendly-certainly more social.
Unlike other Wolfes, Dick enjoyed publicity. He'd stand on the stage of the Ohio Theatre in a blue velvet dinner jacket to introduce the Columbus Symphony, and he'd volunteer for almost anything. Once, he says, he sat on 21 community boards at the same time. One of those was the Mid-Ohio Health Planning Federation, and Dick, although he'd already moved to California, didn't hesitate to criticize his cousin John W.'s position in the cancer hospital battle.
Today Dick is remarried, lives near Los Angeles and is vice president for technology of a company called Sat-Corp Inc. He returns to Columbus occasionally, but says he no longer sits on the boards of any Wolfe companies.
Dick's younger brother Bruce, now 43, likewise plays no major role in family businesses. Bruce, indeed, left Columbus at age 13 and has lived mainly in California ever since. A graduate of Stanford University and Hastings Law School, he was associated for several years with an environmental group that, among other things, bought desert properties to save them from development. Married three times, Bruce now lives in San Francisco and practices law in nearby San Rafael.
If any family members seem equipped by training or temperament to lead a challenge to John W. Wolfe's leadership, Dick and Bruce would be the logical candidates. And both have taken the side of their late cousin, Eddie III, and his half sister, Jane Scott, in the current legal battles. But both Bruce and Dick say they have no intention of trying to pull off a coup.
For now, John W. Wolfe seems secure. But what will happen if he decides to retire in seven years at age 65? In addition to himself and John F., only one other third-generation family member-Robert H.'s son Michael-is active in any family business. At 33, Michael holds an important job-Dispatch production manager-but so far hasn't appeared to be on a fast track to joining the two Johns at the family's highest echelon.
The capabilities of the fourth-generation Wolfes have yet to be thoroughly tested. Only the late Bill Wolfe's son, William Jr., known as Cubby, works at the Dispatch, as office manager. None of John W.'s children work in a family business, although Robert F. III did once work for WBNS-TV. Among Edgar Jr.'s children, Edgar III has died; Andrew describes himself as a farmer, tending his property near Buckeye Lake; Elisa says she wants to open a business of her own; and Amy stays home with her child, John Preston Wolfe. One of Cubby's two sisters, Mary Relna, recently married and lives in Columbus. The other, Susan Jane, is a writer living in Dallas. The children of Michael, John F., Nancy, Dick and Bruce are still of school age.
Of all the fourth-generation Wolfes (21 so far), John W.'s favorite seems to be Amy. And Amy, 30, says she would like to "join the family business at a serious level down the road. The opportunity is there if I want it." If that happens, it would set a Wolfe family precedent. No Wolfe woman has ever held substantial power in a family business. But 14 of the 21 fourth-generation Wolfes are female, so the odds may favor change.
Another real possibility is that John W. and John F. may orchestrate the sale of some-or even all-of the family's major assets. Estate and inheritance tax laws work against the smooth transfer of ownership from one generation to the next. Rather than face the prospect that the family empire might be ripped apart by squabbles among the next generation, or between the next generation and the tax collectors, the two Johns may opt to sell out. It's happened before in Columbus-the Jeffrey family is a notable example. And surely major media and financial conglomerates would be interested in acquiring companies as powerful in their markets as the Dispatch Printing Company and the Ohio Company.
Yet, it seems unlikely that the Wolfes would sell the Dispatch and the Ohio Company. Those businesses are the cornerstones of their powerbase, and it's difficult to imagine John Walton Wolfe as just another rich, retired businessman. He appears to like the ability, when a project or an issue stirs him, to exert some influence-either actively or simply by letting his opinions be known.
The interesting questions that surround the city's most powerful family right now revolve around the amount of public involvement of its leaders, specifically John W.'s increasingly visible role in the community; around the lawsuit over Eddie's will and the effects it may have on family relationships and family business; and on the eventual succession to leadership of the empire.
Predicting the future is a chancy proposition with this family, but one thing seems relatively certain: The Wolfes will remain a dominant force in the city for years. They have been so since the turn of the century, and probably will be so through the turn of the next.*** Eddie's legacy
The death of Edgar III ignites a family legal battle.
Edgar T. Wolfe III, notable to Wolfe-watchers for the fact that he declared himself gay, felt more at home in California than in Ohio. He moved in 1979 to San Francisco, where he opened a small data processing company he called the ET3 Network (as in Edgar T. III). A charming, witty young man, Eddie sometimes joked his way through painful situations. "One time he got the tip of his ring finger cut off," recalls a family member. "When he went to the hospital, he told them he was a concert pianist and would never be able to play again. He had the nurses in tears."
But Eddie fell victim to AIDS, the always fatal disintegration of the body's immune systems that primarily afflicts homosexuals. As his health deteriorated in 1984 and early 1985, Eddie tried to get his financial affairs in order. He was entitled to about one-fourth of the estate of his father, Edgar Jr., who had died in a plane crash in 1975. And Eddie III wanted to give the bulk of his own estate-estimated at $15 million-to his half sister, Jane Scott. Scott, a daughter of Eddie's mother by her second marriage, has no Wolfe blood.
By the time he died, at age 34, on May 20, 1985, Eddie thought he and his lawyers had worked everything out. But his uncle, John Walton Wolfe, the current family patriarch, thought otherwise. Eddie had executed his final will and amended his trust in April, 1985, about a month before his death. The principal beneficiaries were Scott; Eddie's friend, Lain Foos; and AIDS research projects. Eddie instructed his cousin Bruce Wolfe, a California lawyer, to divide his personal and business property among friends and family. And he specifically disinherited three relatives: his mother, Marilyn May; and his half-siblings, Andrew and Amy, Edgar Jr.'s children by a second marriage.
The first salvo in what has become a complex legal war was fired by Andrew and Amy, who filed actions in June and July, 1985, to contest Eddie's will. In addition to questioning Eddie's competency when he executed the will, Andrew and Amy contended that Bruce Wolfe, Bruce's brother, Dick Wolfe, and Jane Scott had unduly influenced Eddie.
The next shots came from the trustees for Edgar Jr.'s trust-John W. Wolfe and Huntington National Bank-and from the special administrator for Eddie's estate, the Bank of California. These cases, in Franklin County Probate Court and U.S. District Court, respectively, center on the fact that, at the time of his death, Eddie III had not yet received his share of Edgar Jr.'s estate.
John W. Wolfe's contention is that, because Eddie III had no children and had not received his share of his father's estate before he died, Eddie's estate should never receive it. Instead, the money should go to Eddie's full sister, Elisa, and his half-siblings, Amy and Andy.
The Bank of California, contending that Eddie's estate should receive its full share of Edgar Jr.'s trust, has leveled heavy broadsides at John W. Wolfe and Huntington National Bank. The Bank of California charges the trustees purposely refused, despite repeated requests from Eddie III, to turn over his share of the trust to him.
Court records indicate Eddie first requested his share in June, 1980, when he turned 30-the age upon which Edgar Jr.'s will stipulated his children could receive their inheritances. Because of tax encumbrances on the estate, however, the trustees apparently could not meet Eddie III's request until January, 1985, when the tax issues were settled. Between January and May, the Bank of California says, Eddie requested his share three times. Twice the four beneficiaries failed to reach agreement on the distribution. But on May 14, 1985-six days before Eddie's death-a distribution agreement signed by all four beneficiaries was delivered to the trustees. Based on that document and verbal promises from his uncle, John W. Wolfe, the Bank of California contends, Eddie died believing his estate was secure and his wishes would be followed.
The Bank of California contends John W. Wolfe and Huntington National Bank knew Eddie III had a "life-threatening disease," and purposely delayed distributing his father's estate because John W. disliked Eddie's lifestyle and didn't want any Wolfe stock to fall outside family control.
The trustees, in court filings, contend they couldn't have delayed distributing the estate based on knowledge of Eddie's illness, because they had no knowledge of his illness. And the trustees question whether the "final agreement" signed by Andrew, Amy, Elisa and Eddie was, in fact, final. Andrew Wolfe acknowledges in a court filing that he signed the document, but denies it was a final agreement.
What's at stake in these court battles? First, the cases will decide who gets Eddie III's share of his father's estate-Jane Scott, Lain Foos and AIDS research; or Andrew, Amy and Elisa. Second, they will decide whether that wealth passes in cash-John W. Wolfe's preference-or in stock in the Dispatch Printing Company, the Ohio Company and RadiOhio Inc. If stock is transferred, Wolfe businesses could be forced to deal with a new shareholder, Jane Scott, who is not a blood relative.
Andrew and Amy are known to support their uncle, John W. On the other hand, Jane Scott and Elisa Wolfe were said to be very close to Eddie III. Elisa, says one of her attorneys, knew Eddie had AIDS, but at his request didn't reveal his illness to family members. Also, Elisa's share in her father's estate is in question; John W. wants the option of giving her cash instead of stock. Dick Wolfe and his brother, Bruce, shareholders themselves, have sided with Jane Scott. From a moral standpoint, Dick says, Eddie should have had the right to leave his money to whomever he pleased.
It's conceivable that Jane Scott and Elisa might inherit half of Edgar Jr.'s estate, but even if they wanted to join forces with Dick and Bruce-who deny a coup attempt-they probably couldn't outvote the shares controlled by John W. Still, the prospect of an intra-family struggle must surely displease John W., who's had things his own way for more than a decade.
Will any of the lawsuits ever come to trial? Probably not. According to Probate Judge Richard Metcalf, a vast majority of will interpretation cases never even set a hearing date. They're settled long before trial by the lawyers for the disputing parties. There's no indication the battles over Eddie Wolfe's legacy are nearing a settlement yet, but a small battalion of lawyers is talking, exchanging papers, considering alternatives. Unless Jane Scott is fiercely determined to insist on her day in court, a settlement may come fairly quickly.
Ray Paprocki is a staff writer for Columbus Monthly.