Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 30, 2010

Elizabeth Wolf

Longtime Palo Alto resident has made philanthropy a family project

by Aimee Miles

For philanthropist Elizabeth Wolf, the business of helping others has been a family affair for as long as she can remember.

At 77, the cheerful, bespectacled Wolf is a veteran of Palo Alto community service and still helps run the family foundation she started with her husband decades ago, for which her children now serve as trustees.

Wolf champions causes benefiting children in underserved areas and still divides her time between volunteering and managing the foundation, whose beneficiaries have included arts and education programs, medical and scientific research projects, and nature and environmental initiatives.

"I'm exhausted at the end of the day," Wolf said. "It takes a lot of energy to do it well."

A Taunton, Mass., native, Wolf attended Wheelock College in Boston, where she trained to be a teacher. After graduating, she began teaching second- and third-graders in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

A former minister's wife introduced her to Hans Wolf, who had completed his master's degree at Harvard Business School and was working for a metals fabrication company in Attleboro. They were engaged six weeks later and married six months after their first date.

"I think if any of my kids did that I would go crazy," Wolf said, laughing.

Though both had grown up frugally, the couple shared a passion for philanthropy and community service, which had been a part of their own family traditions. By 1966, the Wolfs decided they had $1,000 in their yearly budget that they could set aside just for that purpose.

"We decided we'd be able to start a foundation," Wolf said. "We felt that we had so much, and many had so little, and we wanted to make a commitment. We didn't call it 'philanthropy,' we called it 'for helping others.'"

The Hans and Elizabeth Wolf Foundation was born that year. The charity was tailored to support handpicked community-oriented nonprofits whose causes the Wolfs believed in.

The couple later moved to Dallas, where Hans had a job with Texas Instruments. Wolf made good friends there, but she said the "extremes of weather" didn't suit her.

In 1975, the family resettled in Palo Alto. She found the weather, and the culture, quite agreeable.

"I liked the focus on community here," she said.

The couple continued to nurture their foundation while raising their four children.

Wolf's Palo Alto home, where she has lived for 35 years, isn't as crowded or bustling as it once was. Wolf now enjoys taking quiet dinners on the patio, where her meals are complemented by a breathtaking view of the foothills and the Bay.

In its heyday, the house served as a setting for Valentine's parties, church fundraising dinners and family gatherings.

A thin strip of wood secured to the kitchen wall serves as a testament to the comings and goings of friends and family members over the years. The height chart, which displays dozens of markings dated as early as 1977, traces the upward progression of Wolf's children and grandchildren, along with measurements of obliging visitors who often traveled long distances to visit them. They included the nephew of a homestay student, the son of Wolf's minister, and her late husband's former nanny in Germany.

Wolf fondly remembers hosting graduate exchange students from India, Germany, New Zealand, France and China, many of whom are still in touch with her today. Residents were expected to help out around the house and take care of their laundry, which contributed to a sense of belonging, Wolf said. "They felt part of the family," she said.

After Hans died in 2004, Wolf continued managing their foundation herself, scaling back the number of grant recipients to a more manageable 50 organizations. This year, her daughter Deborah took over as president.

Wolf still helps run the foundation with her children while balancing a hectic schedule that includes baby-sitting grandkids, singing in the church choir, visiting grant recipients, and serving as a board member of Abilities United, an organization that provides training and support services to people with physical or developmental challenges. She and the children meet annually to discuss the foundation's next funding cycle.

Recent grants have supported Stanford pancreatic cancer research, the Eastside College Preparatory School, and the Kleinmond School near Capetown, South Africa, established to educate children orphaned by AIDS.

Despite juggling multiple commitments, Wolf sees her demanding agenda as a gift.

"I've sometimes said I'm the luckiest person I know," she said. "One of the most exciting things for my husband and me and for the children is having the privilege to be able to give. It's very rewarding."

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