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Man of faith: Thomas Wolfe uses role as dean of Hendricks, student affairs to connect with SU students, faculty, staff

Brandon Weight | Staff photographer

Thomas Wolfe, senior vice president and dean of student affairs, will leave SU in August to become president of a theology college in Colorado. He's worked at the university for 23 years.

Thomas Wolfe has many talents. He can ride a unicycle, craft a perfect tuna noodle casserole and bring a community together in the face of grief, fear and loss.

“He is a lot of things at once,” said his wife Marilyn. Those who know him say his eclectic series of talents, and a pervading sense of calm and warmth, draws people to him.

He’s a confidante, mentor and ally, humanizing the many official positions he’s held at Syracuse University, among them chaplain, dean of Hendricks Chapel and senior vice president and dean of student affairs.

After 23 years at SU, he will leave his position as senior vice president and dean of student affairs this summer. In August he will become the president of the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

As the dean of Hendricks, Wolfe strengthened the core of the chapel’s interfaith tradition, and also opened it to holy unions and weddings for same-sex couples.

Wolfe drew inspiration for his interfaith work from his father, a United Methodist clergyman. Wolfe said his father had the ability to bring different religious leaders together.

“He was always pulling people of different faiths together,” Wolfe said. “I would come home sometimes and find a rabbi or a priest sitting around the dinner table.”

Wolfe said his father and maternal grandfather played a role in his decision to become a minister, but said he never felt pressured to.

“I felt called to this,” Wolfe said. He knew be wanted to become a minister as early as his freshman year of college. Studying aviation at the time, he loved flying, but realized it would not sustain him spiritually.

Wolfe knew he was meant to work with others, but kept this new dream to himself until he came home that summer. Wolfe’s parents were supportive, as was the clergyman he consulted.

Following this dream would later become one of the most significant decisions of Wolfe’s life, Marilyn said.

Wolfe earned his Master of Divinity from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., and then served as a minister in Ithaca and Moravia.

Next, Wolfe moved to Syracuse, where he served as the interdenominational protestant chaplain in Hendricks Chapel for eight years.

He was selected as the new dean of Hendricks in May 1998, and was set to begin his tenure in January of the following year.

In August of 1998, Wolfe’s father died of cancer.

Wolfe was angry and sad after his father’s death, said his wife Marilyn, but also accepted that his father’s death was a natural part of life. Despite his grief, he helped reassure his daughters, who were experiencing death for the first time.

This helped him to guide those on SU’s campus experiencing death for the first time. For many SU students, this happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

When news spread across campus of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 the campus was in “total shock,” said Kenneth “Buzz” Shaw, who was chancellor at the time. Many students had lost loved ones and were desperately trying to contact them, or simply felt anxious.

Wolfe, who was dean of the chapel at the time, stepped in, said Judy O’Rourke, director of undergraduate studies. Known for his calming presence, Wolfe handles high-pressure situations with grace, while also remaining patient and willing to listen, she said.

“There were a million things to do,” she said. “But when you talked to him, he made you feel like you’re the only one who matters.”

O’Rourke and Wolfe have worked together since his arrival at SU, whether on everyday projects or crisis management, such as the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombings or the Sept. 11 attacks.

Wolfe brought Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish leaders together to plan an interfaith service for the campus following Sept. 11, while turning the chapel into a safe place for the community.

“He can accomplish a lot bridging between different groups,” she said. “He helps people see where they have commonality.”

Wolfe kept the chapel open at all hours, and used it to distribute information.

“The most important thing at that time was to have a place where people could go to gather, comfort one another or pray,” O’Rourke said.

Department of Public Safety officer Kimberly Isaac finds Wolfe’s presence comforting to everyone around him. He makes people feel safe, she said.

Isaac first met Wolfe when he was dean of Hendricks. She said she frequently sat in the chapel while walking through on her late-night patrols.

When Lockerbie Scholar Andrew McClune died after falling out of a window at Sadler Hall in 2002, it was Wolfe that provided comfort to students and to Isaac, who was the first officer at the scene.

Wolfe came through the front door of Sadler that night like an avenging angel” and took control of the situation, Isaac said. He comforted students who had gathered at the scene, and asked Isaac if she was OK.

“There really isn’t a lot I wouldn’t do for Tom Wolfe,” Isaac said. “And I know there are a lot of people who feel the same way in the community.”

After their experience at Sadler, Wolfe became a confidant for Isaac. His friendship and support helped Isaac and her partner Shannon become the first same-sex couple to be married in Hendricks Chapel. At their wedding ceremony, he read a blessing.

Now, when she walks into Hendricks, Wolfe is all she sees, Isaac said. To her, Wolfe embodies the safety and reassurance that she first discovered in the chapel.

“There will never be another one like him,” Isaac said. “We were blessed to have him for as long as we did.”

The trust that Isaac had in Wolfe extended to students as well. Of all his accomplishments, Wolfe most values the trust that students came to have in him.

“One of the things I really value is that students came to trust me. You’re always grateful and always work to earn that trust, because that’s not automatic,” Wolfe said. “Part of the trust is that they will share their experience, and you won’t violate that confidentiality.”

He begins his conversations with students the same way every time – by listening, and believing, Wolfe said.

It’s these qualities and Wolfe’s “remarkable patience” that have resulted in his strong bond with the student body, said Dylan Lustig, former Student Association president.

Lustig said he will always remember sitting in the waiting room before a meeting and observing students talking with Wolfe about issues on campus they felt passionate about.

“Whether you’re venting, whether you’re yelling, he’ll always wait for you to finish,” he said. “He’ll always wait for you and your side.”

Wolfe said he leaves SU with “profound mixed feelings.” The Iliff School of Theology is one of 13 United Methodist seminaries in the country. He said he believes the move will be good for him.

But the decision will take him 2,000 miles away, compared to the few feet down the hall from his first promotion from chaplain to dean of Hendricks.

“I am eternally grateful to SU,” he said. “The people I’ve had to share this work with were the highlight—not the accomplishments, but the experience of university life with people who care.”

Telling the leaders in the division of student affairs that he would be leaving was one of the hardest announcements Wolfe has had to make.

He said he has made the rounds, giving initial goodbyes to inform his staff and friends of his upcoming departure. These farewells are rain checks for another day, when he plans to express his “deepest feelings and appreciation” for each person and bring closure, Wolfe said.

“The nature of the work I do takes you very deep into people’s lives, so you have to be careful how you leave,” he said. “Because you can’t just leave.”

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