Dr. R. Dietz Wolfe: in memoriam.
--Thomas Wolfe, 19 April 1921 (1)
Like Thomas Wolfe, his nearly seven-year-old nephew (referred to as "Dietzie" in the letter quoted above) did eventually amount to at least three whoops. Proving that his father's comment about being a "bright student" was more than just parental bragging, R. Dietz Wolfe became a renowned physician and a respected educator, who served as a mentor and tutor to several generations of physicians. Dr. Wolfe died 12 July 2010 at the age of 96.
Reinhardt Dietz Wolfe was born in New Albany, Indiana, on 25 May 1914 as the only child of Frank C. and Margaret (Dietz) Wolfe. A 1933 graduate of New Albany High School, Wolfe did not immediately seek a medical career. His first love was journalism, and he wrote a bylined sports column for the New Albany Tribune in the mid-1930s. He asked for his uncle's advice about obtaining newspaper work in New York, but the reply was not encouraging. On a photocopy of the letter he received from Thomas Wolfe, Dietz wrote: "I was straight out of high school to a newspaper job as a sports writer for the New Albany ... Tribune, a far cry from being qualified to work on a New York newspaper, but the young are brave." In 1936-37, he lived and worked in Nicaragua, returning home in time to meet with his famous uncle during the author's return to Asheville in the summer of 1937. It was at this time that he nearly brought Thomas Wolfe to tears from laughter when he related a childhood incident with a circus lion (see the 2007 Thomas Wolfe Review, pages 138-39).
Eventually, Dietz took his uncle's oft-offered counsel to go to college, first at Western Kentucky, then the University of Louisville School of Medicine, where he earned his M.D. in 1944. Following service in the U.S. Army Air Corps, Dr. Wolfe became a part-time instructor for the internal medicine program at St. Joseph's Infirmary in Louisville. In 1963 he was named director of medical education and internal medicine, and (in 1977) director of continuing medical education. In 1998 the medical library at Audubon Hospital was named for Dr. Wolfe, and he is further honored with the annual R. Dietz Wolfe, M.D. Lectureship Series. He also received the 1997-98 Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Louisville Alumni Association.
Beginning in November 1992 and continuing through April 2010, I maintained a correspondence with Dr. Wolfe. Based on more than a hundred of his letters (many of which include tiny scrawled notes added sideways or at an angle in the margin), I can safely say that what he was most proud of in his life were his three sons (Dietz Jr., Tom, and Bo), his accomplishments in the medical field, and his status as chief defender of the literary reputation of Thomas Wolfe--in that order. In fact, the most poignant letter he sent (dated 26 August 2002) was about his son Tom, who had died of a heart attack three months earlier: "Of course, I'll never come close to getting over Tom's untimely death. It was not supposed to happen that way."
Concerning his uncle, Dr. Wolfe could be, as he described himself in September 2001, "very crusty." That crustiness could quickly surface if he thought someone had unfairly maligned Thomas Wolfe or his work. He expressed particular contempt (on more than one occasion) for Harold Bloom. But sometimes he would combine a curmudgeon's crustiness with a dry sense of humor, as in his letter of 11 February 2000:
I suppose in reality, there is little that can be done to these mean people: they are mean and apt to stay that way.--But then again, somebody has to go after them. I took on several in New York. Only won one and that was Malcolm Cowley.--But he got me in the long run. He sent me one of his books, where he said something mildly nice about Tom, but sent me a Bill for the Book,-which I paid.
Dr. Wolfe also frequently chided the Thomas Wolfe Society for not doing enough to promote the author on a national stage, but he recognized the difficulty of doing so. He never failed to purchase dozens of annual TWS memberships for friends, family, and untold numbers of Louisville-area physicians, and to make several extra contributions each year. On being awarded an honorary Life Membership in the Society, he wrote: "I am very proud to be named a Life Member in the 'TWS.'--I'll continue to try and advance the position of T.W. as a ranked American writer."
Reading Dr. Wolfe's letters, along with the material he often sent with them, can transport one back to the 1930s, especially when he wrote about two of his passions--sports and music. In February 2005, for example, he included a photocopy of the front page of the New Albany Tribune from March 1934, which features his article on the sectional basketball tournament, including the big rivalry game between New Albany and Jeffersonville (in Indiana, basketball is front-page news). Also shown is an article about John Dillinger's escape from the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana, and another describing President Roosevelt's call for "anti-lobby" legislation--a ban on "men of political 'influence' from practicing before Government departments on all monetary matters." Unfortunately, FDR's efforts were not as successful as Dillinger's.
Dr. Wolfe's love of Big Band music and the great vocalists of that era continued throughout his life. There simply could not have been a more dedicated fan of Frank Sinatra than R. Dietz Wolfe. Over the years he often mentioned the continually worsening state of his hearing, but noted that nothing could prevent him from listening to his Sinatra CDs or, in later years, to satellite radio--a technology that he embraced wholeheartedly. One is reminded of his sneaking away from his grandmother during their visit to the 1933 Chicago World's Fair to have a couple of beers and listen to the Buddy Rogers orchestra (see the 2009 Thomas Wolfe Review, pages 124-25). His love of music would also occasionally bring out the romantic writer in him. On 28 April 2002, in response to a letter noting the ongoing efforts by Indiana University and the city of Bloomington to honor hometown hero Hoagy Carmichael, Dr. Wolfe wrote:
Glad to hear that Hoagy Carmichael is still a part of I.U.--In the Big Band Days, he put out some beautiful music, and I am glad you can indulge yourself both physically & mentally in it.--I get a little lump in my throat when I visualize my youth, with the girls so beautiful, the boys all heroic, the wonderful outdoor dance floor, the moonlight on the grass about the New Albany Country Club, the stars and the gentle strains of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" by the very good local Band.--Not quite Glen Gray, Tommy Dorsey, or Glen Miller, but all very wonderful. The years in many ways in the computer era may be better--but certainly not the music.
I already miss receiving those fascinating letters from Dr. Wolfe, letters that could range across decades of his memories--from the most recent outrage perpetrated by some denigrator of Thomas Wolfe to his week-long friendship (featuring several one-on-one basketball games) with tennis great Don Budge in 1934; from a stout defense of his father and anecdotes about the "Gants" (he tended to use the fictional names when he was irked) to the night he sat on a piano bench in a Louisville nightclub shootin' the breeze with Fats Waller. Of course, I knew the correspondence would come to an end--in fact, I thought it already had when I didn't hear from him for more than a year. But then one final letter arrived in late April 2010: "Just in case you didn't know whether I was living or dead, I'm writing you a line. Obviously I am living, but certainly must be close to the other side." And thus he was off on another delightfully disjointed letter, concluding with praise of Frank Sinatra and a crusty slam on Elvis Presley, followed by a typical closing: "Your Friend--Dietz Wolfe M.D., Tom Wolfe's Nephew."
(1.) Thomas Wolfe, "To Julia E. Wolfe," 19 Apr. 1921, letter 14 of The Letters of Thomas Wolfe to His Mother, ed. C. Hugh Holman and Sue Fields Ross (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P 1968) 23. Print.