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Obituary Milton Wolf of Cleveland, 80, Ambassador and Jewish Leader, Dies

May 23, 2005
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Milton Wolf, a Jewish leader and U.S. ambassador, died Thursday of lymphoma in his Cleveland home. He was 80. A real estate developer who devoted himself to Jewish and civil service, Wolf was U.S. ambassador to Austria from 1977 to 1980, chairman of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland from 1985 to 1988 and president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee from 1992 to 1995.

He also was a trustee of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal, the three groups that merged in 1999 to form the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of the North American Jewish federation movement.

A lifelong student, Wolf had a passion for learning, earning academic degrees and later being granted several honorary ones.

He earned bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, biology and civil engineering and spent a year in medical school before switching his career course to business.

He earned a master’s degree in economics at Case Western Reserve, where he returned for a Ph.D. and later taught the subject.

“People are prisoners if they can’t expand their minds,” Wolf once told a reporter, according to the Cleveland federation.

Those close to Wolf call him a diplomat who had an innate ability to lead organizations, unite people and develop personal relationships — all of which he used to advance Jewish causes.

He was “the consummate diplomat,” said Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the JDC.

“He would sit in a meeting and there would be all sorts of discussions and arguments back and forth, and just at the appropriate time, when people were beginning to get angry at each other, he’d speak up, and he’d somehow manage to say the right words at the right time every time. And after he spoke, people would coalesce around his suggestion,” Schwager said. “He just had an amazing talent to bring people together.”

Wolf was the son of a Cleveland police officer who was paid in scrip instead of money during the Depression.

That background constantly spurred Wolf to aid the less fortunate, according to Stephen Hoffman, a former UJC president and the current president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.

“When he became an adult and when he grew into success, he never forgot where he came from and he never stopped looking for ways to help other people,” Hoffman said.

Moreover, “Milt was a sublime student of history and he saw what Jewish powerlessness was like, and I think he devoted his adult life, in part, to ensuring that we would never be in that position again,” Hoffman said. “He saw that somebody had to stand up for Jews around the world, and he did over and over again.”

As U.S. ambassador to Austria, Wolf hosted the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in Vienna. Both President Carter and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev were at that SALT II meeting.

But Wolf’s diplomatic forays were not always popular.

During his ambassadorship, Wolf met with Yasser Arafat at a time when the United States and Israel still shunned the PLO chief as a terrorist.

He was “severely criticized in the Jewish community” for that meeting, said Albert Ratner, a fellow Cleveland real estate developer and Jewish activist.

“It was always his belief that the Arabs and the Israelis would have to make peace,” and the only avenue was diplomacy, said Ratner, whose first cousin, the late Roslyn Zehman, was Wolf’s wife.

Wolf told Arafat about his hope that the Palestinians would make peace with the Jewish people.

Wolf’s courage and drive were the hallmarks of his character. His motto was that a person cannot choose his or her circumstances, but can decide how to respond to them.

During Wolf’s struggle with illness, his only complaint was that his physical weakness limited his activism, Ratner said. Yet he remained involved in many groups, taking on roles as such heading the Council of American Ambassadors.

Among his many positions, Wolf served as governor of the United Nations Association of the United States of America, and was a board member of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

He was a board member of several businesses, nonprofit groups and universities, ranging from the American Greetings Corporation to the Cleveland Clinic Foundation to Ohio State University.

Institutions across the world, and especially in Cleveland, are a testament to Wolf’s philanthropy and bear his family name.

They include Wolf Field at Cleveland’s Hathaway Brown School, where his daughters were students. He endowed a faculty chair at Cleveland State University named for his wife, who was a trustee there and served five terms as treasurer of the board.

He also created the Wolf Scholarship for Cleveland State students who need financial aid. Wolf also donated $2 million to the Cleveland Clinic in memory of his wife.

Wolf also was generous personally.

“He was a very giving guy, and he never would let you pick up a check at a restaurant,” Hoffman said. “The only way to do it is if you arranged it in advance and then had an argument with him when the check never showed.”

“When you cut to the chase, he was a mensch,” Schwager said. “He was one of the guys. He was somebody you could go out and get a drink with.”

According to Hoffman, Wolf was a model Jewish leader.

“I’ve met many terrific Jewish leaders over the years in Cleveland and elsewhere, and I never met a finer gentleman than Milt Wolf,” Hoffman said.

Wolf is survived by a son, Leslie Eric Wolf, and three daughters, Caryn Wolf Wechsler, Dr. Nancy Wolf and Dr. Sherri Wolf. His funeral was set for Sunday in Cleveland.

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