John Walton Wolfe's death in June signaled major change in the city's power structure. Wolfe enjoyed power, its use and its effects. His successor as head of the family and its media empire, cousin John F. Wolfe, is likely to operate much differently.
This story appeared in the August 1994 issue of Columbus Monthly.
John Walton Wolfe emerged from his East Broad Street office, the place from which he ruled his family's vast business empire and the city's civic and political affairs. He looked the part of the power baron- slicked-back hair, thick eyebrows, heavy face, with a light gray pin-striped suit snug around his considerable girth. The only think missing was a fat cigar wedged into the corner of his mouth.
I was his 2 pm appointment on an April day in 1986. He wanted to discuss an article I had written about the Wolfes' power and wealth in Columbus. He had refused to be interviewed for the story, as had most other family members. Many friends and associates wouldn't talk, saying- off-the-record, in almost hushed tones- feared retribution by John Walton. Those who did cooperate chose their words carefully. Very carefully. The message was clear: Don't mess with John Walton Wolfe.
As Wolfe led me into his spacious 12th-floor office, I was uncertain why I had been invited. He rarely spoke to reporters. Was there a tirade coming? But when he directed me to the office's conversational area, he said, "First I want to thank you for making the article better than expected and no worse than what Columbus Monthly has done."
The story had been hard-hitting, but fair. He appreciated the latter. My reward would be his time. "Go ahead and ask some questions," he said. Off-the-record. Not for publication. And he settled in for the next 40 minutes, slipping off one of his black dress shoes and tucking his right foot up on the chair under his left leg. Later, he would stick his right leg over the arm of the chair.
At times, he was charming, especially when reminiscing about family history and telling funny stories. He was cordial, but frank and blunt. On why no Wolfe woman has held family power: "Men are here to take care of this generation, and mothers are here to take care of future generations." On why he refused to be interviewed or speak publicly: "My life's private. It's nobody's business." He shrugged at the notion he should be held accountable for any of his actions that affected the entire city.
But near the end of our conversation he revealed the side that had made him such a feared figure. Our talk had shifted to his four children; none worked in the family business. There had been considerable speculation for some time that John Walton had been estranged from them since his bitter divorce from his first wife, their mother, in 1968.
He didn't speak directly about his children. Instead, Wolfe walked to a wooden cabinet that displayed a TV set and VCR. After spending several minutes trying to make the VCR work, he inserted a videotape he's had sent over from WBNS, the family-owned television station. We watched a news report about a man who had come under scrutiny for how he housed mentally retarded adults.
"That's my ex-wife's brother," he said, and then criticized the man's lifestyle, behavior and habits. His message, albeit odd in its delivery, was clear: What he saw as the kids shortcomings were all her fault, so don't blame him. He was being harsh and mean, and he didn't seem to care that he was.
We went back to the chairs. He brought up a sentence in my story about his divorce. We debated its phrasing briefly before he held up his hands, his palms facing me the way a cop might stop traffic.
"Hey, that's OK," he said. "You do what you have to do."
He paused and then added, "But I'm going to keep on doing what I do."
For nearly two decades J.W. Wolfe 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.
He could be vindictive and unrelenting; when his fist crashed down, the Richter-scale impact sent shock waves across the city. Using the family-owned Dispatch like a club, he bludgeoned opponents, until their smashed projects and careers littered the civic landscape- acting as ominous warnings.
Wolfe was a nonelected decision-maker who, behind the scenes, shaped and steered public policy, boosted and broke political ambitions. Even when he wasn't responsible for something happening, people often thought he was. Perception counts. Civic and political leaders frequently paused to ask, "What does J.W. think?"
An era ended when J.W. Wolfe died this June, and his death creates a vacuum in the power structure at a critical time as Columbus struggles to become a major-league city. There are other Titans: Limited founder Les Wexner, Banc One's John B. McCoy and Huntington National Bank's Frank Wobst. Mayor Greg Lashutka, who wouldn't have publicly acknowledged J.W.'s singular dominance before his death, said at a press conference, "I think we will see a broader spectrum of leadership in the city."
And that leadership will include another Wolfe: John Frederick Wolfe, Dispatch publisher and J.W.'s second cousin and ally, is the new family patriarch, coming forward to oversee the family's interests. (See "Chronology of power.")
John F. Wolfe spend many years in J.W.'s shadow, and only recently, with his control of two major civic projects, has he begun to emerge as a force in his own right. In many ways, he remains a mystery, his style and personality unknown outside a circle of relatives and associates. Does he have- or will he develop- J.W.'s love of power and political kingmaking? Where will his civic attention turn? How will he lead the business empire, which includes the Dispatch, WBNS-TV and the family's large brokerage and investment firm, the Ohio Company? How will he shepherd a diverse and sometimes fractious family?
John F. declined to be interviewed for this story. Like J.W. before him, John F. clings to his privacy. The two of them had public profiles so low that many people confused them or thought only one John Wolfe existed. (In fact, John Walton Wolfe insisted in his later years on being called J.W. to distinguish him from John F.) The two agreed on many matters, says Dick Wolfe, John F.'s cousin. Concerning the family business, Dick says, "They were pretty much in agreement over everything that was done."
However, if Dick Wolfe's analysis is on the mark, Columbus may see a startling change in the Wolfe way of getting things done. The era of vengeance and raw power plays could be over. "My guess is that he will use [power] as encouragement instead of punishment," says Dick. "He will be a leader in pulling together rather than using that voice in retribution."
The passing of an era
J.W. Wolfe had planned to spend the summer at his Buckeye Lake home on Journal Island. Although he also kept his Bexley residence, Wolfe (for tax and health reasons) officially lived in Naples, Florida, since late 1990. J.W. resided about nine months a year in his large condo on the Gulf Coast, calling himself semiretired. In January, for the first time, he missed the annual meeting of Wolfe stockholders.
But J.W. remained very much plugged in to the family business and Columbus's community through several phones, a fax and computer at his Florida home. Retirement was not in J.W.'s blood. He once said, "You paddle your canoe until it stops."
In the last few years, he knew he was traveling on rough water. He had long suffered from diabetes, and in the later 1980s underwent multiple-bypass heart surgery. Yet, he refused to change his lifestyle significantly, continuing to smoke and drink. "What he liked to do, he did," says his close friend and business associate Dick Solove.
Then on June 10 at 1 am in his Journal Island home, J.W. Wolfe died at age 65. Solove says Wolfe was awake and suffered a heart attack- contrary to the following day's Dispatch story that reported he "died of natural causes in his sleep."
A memorial serve at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Columbus attracted the city's power elite, from former governor and longtime Wolfe ally Jim Rhodes to Gov. George Voinovich. His death triggered accolades and remembrances from friends and political and civic leaders. J.W. Wolfe cared deeply for his home town and made massive contributions- both public and private- of time and money to various organizations and people. He shunned the spotlight, not wanting recognition for his personal philanthropy.
J.W.'s interests were in areas long held dear by the Wolfe family. There were health-care issues; he was the driving force behind the creation of the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Research Institute at Ohio State University and a founding director of Newark's Shepherd Hill Hospital for alcohol- and drug-abuse treatment. He played big roles at the Columbus Zoo and Port Columbus International Airport, both of which were started by Wolfe family members of past generations. He served on community boards, including eight years at the Columbus Foundation, which attracts and administers charitable trusts.
"I know he spend more time on his civic and philanthropic concerns than on his business," says Solove, who remembers when Wolfe, without hesitation, wrote a $110,000 check to help cover the expenses of a public relations campaign for the James center. "Nobody was turned away from his door," says Jim Luck, Columbus Foundation executive director.
Despite Wolfe's vast wealth, he was down to earth ; he liked to garden, cook and visit Buckeye Lake. "He didn't try to run with the socially best people," says attorney and friend Jack Chester. "He didn't care about that." People knew where they stood with J.W. "There was nothing you had to speculate about," says a civic leader.
There didn't seem to be any middle ground with J.W. To close friends and loyal employees he was warm and generous. Luck calls him "one of the gentlest, kindest men I've known." Others knew a different J.W. Wolfe. To them he was a hot-tempered tyrant who cared little if he was liked, even relishing the opposite. He could be crude and autocratic: at the Ohio Company, J.W. once gave a certain employees ashtrays depicting the story of Romulus and Remus- twin brothers suckled by a she-wolf- to remind them of who "fed" them.
J.W.'s influence on the political and civic scene was unparalleled. When he died, the Dispatch painted him as a benevolent counselor, making himself available to advise when he could. In fact, he set the agenda, operating like a puppeteer by pulling strings from behind a stage. Meeting with J.W was a requirement- not an option- for aspiring officeholders. "It was a rite of passage, if you were a candidate, to see J.W.," says one political insider, describing the procession of politicians and wannabes who visited J.W. at his office on East Broad Street.
J.W. was a frequent patron of the now defunct Mario's Internationale, holding court at a back table at the Statehouse hangout with the likes of Ohio House speaker Vern Riffe, Ohio Senate head Stanley Aronoff, Franklin County Republican Party chairman Michael Colley or former county Democratic Party leader John Jones, among many others. Although he favored Republicans, he backed candidates from both parties. Among his pet politicians in the past few years were Lashutka, a Republican, and two Democrats, State Rep. Mike Stinziano and former Franklin County Commissioner Hugh DeMoss. Two-term Columbus Mayor Buck Rinehart was a favorite of Wolfe's- he pushed him for governor in 1990- until he fell from grace for denying his affair with a cabinet member.
There are numerous- some would say countless- examples of J.W.'s exacting vengeance against those who opposed or disagreed with him. The litany of crushed hopes, careers and projects is staggering. (See "Gallery of Pain.") One civic type who felt J.W.'s opposition says, "You could be in 95 percent agreement, but then there was that 5 percent- and it could be a painful 5 percent." Ask former Franklin County Auditor Palmer McNeal about the consequences of crossing J.W. Wolfe. Or former COTA head Will Hellerman. Or former Mid-Ohio Health Planning Federation director Gordon Labuhn. ""Former" in the operative word in these instances.
Unlike another Titan, resident Big Thinker Les Wexner, J.W. was not a visionary. Earth-shattering ideas didn't issue forth. His view, once explained to a reporter, was something like: "Columbus is a good place to live, so why fix something if it's not broken." J.W. held veto power. If you couldn't get him on your side, then your project, for the most part, was either stalled or dead.
Larry James, a prominent attorney and former Columbus safety director, knows about J.W.'s veto power. In early 1990, James vigorously sought appointment as a federal district court judge. "He did not support me; we had differing opinions on policy questions and he wasn't comfortable with me in a post that had a lifetime appointment," says James. "He worked very hard to make sure I didn't receive the position." After J.W. objected to his candidacy, James says he had only one chance to be considered: "An act of God."
It's rare for one man to accumulate so much power, to control futures with a nod or shake of his head. J.W. was a fascinating figure, who used power in both extremes, to improve the community and to cause pain. "There will never be another J.W.," says James; "In some ways that's good, and in some ways that's bad."
The dawning of a new era
In 1975, two Wolfes were thrust to the forefront after the tragic death of Dispatch publisher Edgar Wolfe Jr. They were John W. Wolfe John F. Wolfe. Of course, John W.- who ran the Ohio Company and the Dispatch Printing Company- seized his opportunity. John F., who became Dispatch publisher, seemed to shrink. He was only 32 years old and seemed uncomfortable with his sudden responsibility.
Now, almost 20 years alter, comes a second major transition of power. Over the past couple of years, the Wolfes dealt with the succession issue by handing more responsibility within the family empire to John F. And it is a sizable empire. In addition to the Dispatch, the Dispatch Printing Company, the Ohio Company and WBNS-TV, the Wolfes own or control Ohio Magazine, WBNS-FM and –AM, and Indianapolis television station, large amounts of commercial and industrial real estate, thousands of acres of farmland in Madison and Clark counties and a family foundation that has contributed millions of dollars to the community.
It appears John F. will put a very different face on Wolfe power. So far, there's little resemblance to J.W.'s larger-than-life persona. John F. is pragmatic, to the point of being bland. "He tends to make decisions based on facts- not letting decisions become tinged with emotion," says Dick Wolfe. "His style is less flamboyant than John Walton, less emotional, more business. He sits and listens to all information, thinks it through very carefully, instead of a gut feel." Adds a politico who has worked closely with John F., "He likes to be liked."
And, Dick says, John F.'s taste for politics is considerably less than was J.W.'s. "He's not like J.W., who did politics for the fun, the emotional kick he got out of that kind of sport."
On the civic side, John F. already has established a track record. After sitting on just a handful of boards, he burst into the community spotlight in the late 1980s by heading two enormous projects: Son of Heaven, the Chinese art exhibit at the old Central High School, and AmeriFlora, the 1992 flower show extravaganza at Franklin Park. His involvement thrust him to the top of the civic mountaintop. And his decision to chair both events, to go out front, was very unWolfe-like.
Once he took center stage, John F.'s performance was a mixed bag. He is highly credited by his peers for his hard work and commitment. But neither event delivered what was promised. Both lost money (taxpayers bailed out Son of Heaven; the Wolfes spend millions on AmeriFlora, which also received $33 million in public funds), and AmeriFlora's attendance fell short of projections.
People close to John F. say he hasn't soured on civic commitment. John B. McCoy says, "Johnny has enjoyed it, and he will continue to be active." He belongs to the Columbus Foundation board, having replaced J.W. when he left in 1992.
It's assumed John F. will continue to focus attention on such family interests as health care, the zoo and the airport. McCoy says John F. also is interested in education and COTA, but then adds, "Actually the Wolfes have a thought on everything. John has a great love of Columbus."
The take on John F.'s vision of the city is fuzzy; he doesn't address issues publicly. A civic associate said several years ago that it was important to John F. that Columbus "not lose that small-town feel- not lose the good things as we change." But Dick Wolfe says, "He is a forward-looking person, not in it to preserve what is." Son of Heaven and AmeriFlora showed he would take a risk to try to establish Columbus as a major-league city.
But most of John F.'s time undoubtedly will be spent overseeing family matters, particularly the businesses. The radio stations seemingly are sluggish, garnering less than impressive ratings. The television station is No. 1 in its market, but is undergoing a transition in management after longtime chairman and president Gene D'Angelo's retirement. At the Dispatch, Wolfe soon may have to choose a new editor to replace Bob Smith, who is nearing retirement age.
Dick describes John F. as an astute businessman and a numbers whiz. He credits John F. for making the progressive decision to build the Dispatch's new state-of-the-art printing plant on the far west side. John F. also helped usher in the death of the joint operation agreement that virtually killed the Citizen-Journal in 1985 and enabled the Dispatch to move from afternoon publication to the lucrative morning market.
"He is efficient and effective. I look for him to refine and improve, to keep all companies in the most modern position," says Dick Wolfe. He adds, "Under John's leadership, the family business is in as good a shape as since (Harry P. and Robert F. Wolfe) founded them."
J.W.'s death renewed rumors that the Dispatch would be sold. Speculation centered on two key issues: the family needing to sell the paper to settle estate and tax issues and the lack of a successor beyond John F. The only other Wolfe family member to hold a high-ranking position in the family business is 43-year-old William C. Wolfe Jr., vice president/community relations at the Dispatch, who has an extremely low profile.
Dick Wolfe has heard the rumors, too, and says he asked John F. about them. "John F. told me the paper is not for sale. And there is no contemplation of a sale." Dick adds, "John F. is 50 years old; he's got 15 years of business life left, if not more. I see him around for a long time. We have good paid management in place. There is not reason to sell."
That does not mean conditions couldn't change to force a sale- namely, the fracturing of the Wolfe family. The family is well into its fourth generation, growing larger and more diverse.
Court action still lingers over a painful and public lawsuit filed in the mid 1980s over stock distribution. Eddie Wolfe III, who died of AIDS, wanted to leave his father's estate to a non-Wolfe half-sister and to AIDS research. J.W. Wolfe, acting as executor of the estate, followed the long-held family policy that Wolfe stock would not fall into outsiders' hands. The legal action exposed the divisions, alliances and bad blood in the family. One Wolfe involved in the suit, Eddie III's sister, Elisa Wolfe, still contends the appraisals used to set the price of stock in the businesses are too low. Her action is under appeal.
Meanwhile there's a new lawsuit. Two fourth-generation Wolfe women- Mary Wolfe Crall of Columbus and Susan Jane Wolfe of Texas- are entangles with the Dispatch Printing Company in a legal battle, also over stock distribution.
And now attention will fall on J.W.'s children to see if they will seek a larger part of their father's estate. According to his will, filed in Florida, J.W. directed that his stock in Wolfe businesses remain in family hands. His vast holdings will be administered by co-executors and trustees John F. Wolfe and William C. Wolfe based on an agreement he signed in 1993. The agreement was not explained as part of the will, but reportedly beneficiaries of his estate will be his wife, Norina Wolfe, and a family trust established at the Columbus Foundation. J.W. already set up a trust for his children, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild. But he cut them out of his will: "I deliberately and intentionally made no provision for my children and their issue…."
It doesn't take much to start drawing parallels to the Bingham family of Louisville, who owned the Courier-Journal. Estate battles ripped the family apart and spurred the sale of the paper.
Dick, who says he and John F. are close friends and that they talk frequently about business matters, calls his cousin the right man to head the family now, particularly if it continues to fracture. "John F. would bring the family together as much as anyone. He tends to keep the heat down. He is the least biased and fairest of all the family operators there have been."
For civic and political types, Wolfe watching is a favorite sport. Like the Kremlinologists of the Cold War, Wolfe watchers analyze and speculate on any bit of information that emerges about the secretive family. And John F. is a tough read. Even John B. McCoy, who has known John F. since their days together at Columbus Academy in the 1950s, says, "Who knows?" when asked how he will respond to his new leadership role.
Already, the tea leaves are being examines. Only a week had passed after J.W.'s death when observers were pondering the significance of a harsh Dispatch editorial directed at Franklin County Prosecutor Michael Miller, who has been a past target of the paper. Was John F. sending a sign that he, too, could be tough?
Any others strongly suggest keeping John F.'s wife, Ann Isaly Wolfe, on the radar screen. She is said to have more influence on family matters than any Wolfe wife of the past.
So a city waits, looking for answers, wondering how the new generation of Wolfe power will enter the next century: as a dominant force of splintered by family disputes. The burden falls to John F. Wolfe to determine the family's fate and its role in Columbus's future. As Dick Wolfe says, "He's the man now."
A chronology of power
With the death of John Walton Wolfe, John F. Wolfe, 50, becomes the nest head of the Wolfe family, continuing the family tradition of male succession. The following is a chronology of power among the Wolfes:
1890-1927: Brothers Harry P. and Robert F. Wolfe, originally from eastern Ohio, joined forces in 1890 in Columbus, working at H.C. Godman show business. By 1905, they owned the Wolfe Brothers Shoe Company and had bought the Ohio State Journal and Columbus Dispatch. Later they diversified into banking, eventually forming Ohio's first bank holding company, BancOhio Corp., in 1929. With their wealth and influence, the brothers became Republicans to be reckoned with locally and nationally. Harry, unlike the more gregarious Robert, guarded his privacy and rarely spoke publicly. In 1928 Robert F. fell out of a fifth-floor window of the Dispatch building and died at age 66.
1927-1957: Robert F.'s only son, Edgar Wolfe, became Harry's partner. When Harry died of kidney disease in 1946, Edgar assumed family leadership. He had half of the family stock while the other half was split among Harry's three sons: Preston, Richard and Robert. Edgar, Dispacth publisher, played a dominant role behind the development of Port Columbus International Airport. Edgar, who broadened the family's media influence by starting WBNS-TV in 1949, died of cancer in 1957.
1957-1973: With Edgar's death, power fell to Harry's sons Robert, Dispatch publisher, and Preston, president of the Dispatch Printing Company. Richard had died in 1953. The dominant Dispatch forced its competition, the Citizen, to merge with the Wolfes' morning newspaper, the Journal. With the Wolfes holding the upper hand, the Citizen-Journal debuted in 1959, working under a joint operating agreement that lasted until the end of 1985 when the Wolfes refused to renew the JOA and the C-J died.
1973-1994: By 1973, both Preston and Harry had retired and power shifter back to Robert F.'s side of the family tree. Edgar had two sons, Edgar Jr. and John Walton. Edgar became Dispatch publisher until 1975, when he died at age 49 in a plane crash. John W. was thrust into the role of family kingpin. He oversaw the Dispatch Printing Company and the Ohio Company, the Wolfes large investment and brokerage house. Also forces to the forefront in 1975 was 32-year-old John F. Wolfe, Preston's son. John F. became Dispatch publisher. It would take John F. many years to adjust to his position as a power broker. John W., however, grasped the opportunity with enthusiasm. He would be the most powerful man in Columbus for more than two decades, until he died this year.
1991-: John F. assumes control of the Wolfe family. The only other Wolfe holding responsibility in the business is William C. Wolfe Jr., vice president/community relations at the Dispatch.
The Gallery of Pain
Like a feudal baron who now and then punished a lowly serf just to demonstrate his authority, John Walton Wolfe seemed almost to revel in making painful examples of those who challenged or offended him. Sometimes the vendetta was signaled by Wolfe's abrupt exit from a board or committee. On other occasions, the target's first warning was a phone call from Bob Ruth, the most relentless hunter-killer in the Dispatch newsroom. While the heretics were guilty of bad judgment- or worse- their worst sin was crossing Wolfe. Almost always they wound up damaged or ruined.
Here's a brief tour of J.W.'s gallery of pain:In the late 1980s, when Wolfe was backing Columbus Mayor Buck Rinehart for governor, Franklin County Auditor Palmer McNeal aligned himself with county Republican chairman Mike Colley and executive director Terry Casey behind then-Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich.
Wolfe was not amused, vowing to clean house.
He lobbed Democrat Hugh DeMoss into the county auditor's race against McNeal. McNeal won, then gloated about beating Wolfe's candidate. Bad idea. Later, the Dispatch rooted out wrongdoings by McNeal, who resigned his office, pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was sentenced to five days in jail. McNeal's mug shot ran on the front page of the paper.
Later, Casey, under fire for his handling of campaign finances, became the focus of scathing Dispatch editorials attacking the county Republican Party for allegedly laundering campaign contributions to McNeal. In 1993, Casey struck a deal with the Ohio Elections Commission, resigning his post and paying a $10,000 fine.In 1984, Wolfe resigned from the University Hospitals board of trustees, citing his dissatisfaction with hospital administrators and the huge sums earned by doctors in private practice there. Larry Carey, a principal target of Wolfe's ire, soon was forced to resign as chairman of OSU's department of surgery. OSU's practice plan was revamped. In the early 1980s, Will Hellerman, a Nationwide Insurance executive and COTA president, called the Wolfes too stingy to support public transit; Wolfe derailed the next COTA tax levy. Wolfe also resigned from the board of Battelle Commons, the not-not-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 managed incompetently. Tipton was removed as director. Wolfe persuaded Gov. James Rhodes, a longtime Wolfe favorite, to eliminate Ohio's health planning agencies in the early 1980s. At the time, Wolfe was angry at the Mid-Ohio Health Planning Federation and its director, Gordon Labuhn, for opposing his plan to build the $40 million Arthur G. James cancer research hospital at Ohio State University. Labuhn moved to Virginia; the cancer center opened in 1990. Even Buck Rinehart- Wolfe's favorite son, his choice for governor- could not escape Wolfe's wrath when he fell from grace. Wolfe pulled the safety net out from underneath him in the early 1990s when Rinehart lied about having an affair with a cabinet member. Rinehart, whose political career crashed and burned after a devastating Dispatch exposé, was supplanted as the 1991 Republican mayoral candidate after J.W. and other Titans anointed Greg Lashutka as their pick during a meeting at the Columbus Club.