MY WASHINGTON — Spring 2004
   

 
Edith L. Wolff

A Legacy of Helping Others

Over the years, Edith Wolff has tended and grown the seeds of philanthropy that she and her late husband, Alan Wolff, originally planted after their initial business successes. One immensely important example of her continual commitment to others is her support of critical medical research at the School of Medicine.

Edith Wolff is a woman with a mission: to carry on the work and the good works she and her late husband, Alan A. Wolff, began together more than 60 years ago.

When Al Wolff died in 1989, Edith Wolff succeeded him as president of Wolff Construction Company, the business he founded in the late 1940s. The company was a pioneer builder of shopping centers in Missouri, Illinois, and Kansas during the '50s and '60s, but today focuses on real estate investment and the management and leasing of the shopping centers and stand-alone commercial buildings it owns.

Edith Wolff, a native St. Louisan and longtime community volunteer, keeps a firm hand on the business by going into the office, or at least checking in, daily. An astute businessperson, she has continued to build on her husband's successes.

She applies the same attention to detail in her commitment to community service and her philanthropy. Although she believes strongly that people should be self-reliant, she also believes the community has an obligation to help those least able to help themselves. She began helping others in the community at age 16, when she volunteered at the original Jewish Hospital. She continues to give her time and energy to organizations and institutions that help the most vulnerable citizens in our community, especially the mentally and physically handicapped.

Among the causes to which she gives her attention and generous support are the Alzheimer's Association, Central Institute for the Deaf, Metropolitan Employment and Rehabilitation Services (MERS) of Missouri's Goodwill Industries, the Life Skills Foundation, the Jewish Center for the Aged, the St. Louis Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC), the Jewish Family and Children's Services, as well as several nursery schools, day-care centers, and organizations serving children. One of her special interests over the years has been the Childgarden School, operated by the St. Louis ARC to provide day-care and pre-school services to children with developmental disabilities and their normally developing peers.

Wolff has served on the boards of the Jewish Center for the Aged, MERS, and the St. Louis ARC. She has been honored by the Life Skills Foundation for her philanthropic contributions, and she has received the Jane Strauss Memorial Community Service Award from the St. Louis chapter of the National Rehabilitation Association and the Goldstein-Fleishman Geriatric Excellence Award from the Jewish Center for the Aged.

She says, "My husband worked very hard for our money, and I want it to do some good ... to help people in need."

She and her husband also became deeply interested in several areas of medical research being done at the Washington University School of Medicine. Their interest was partially fueled by their relationship with I. Jerome Flance, professor emeritus of clinical medicine at the medical school and the Wolffs' friend and personal physician for more than 50 years. The Wolffs expressed an early interest in supporting medical research in the areas of renal disease, diabetic and pulmonary diseases, hematology and oncology, and cardiovascular diseases.

Dr. Flance says: "Edith's support of basic medical research as well as her support for human services for people in need is a very well-thought-out, deep-seated commitment. Generations of individuals will benefit." He added that this was the legacy both she and her husband wanted.

Edith Wolff says, "My husband worked very hard for our money, and I want it to do some good ... to help people in need."

In addition to her many gifts to the School of Medicine for research, which remain a significant part of her annual philanthropic giving, Edith Wolff has contributed to many other projects and programs, including the I. Jerome Flance Visiting Professorship fund, to honor his work in pulmonary disease, and the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Scholarship-Loan Fund in the School of Medicine, a non-interest-bearing fund for medical students.

During the Campaign for Washington University, she has strengthened her commitment to the medical school and the work of its faculty by endowing two chairs. In 1999, she established the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professorship in Medicine to support progress in our understanding of cancer. That chair is held by Timothy Ley, a specialist in cancer research. In 2003, she endowed the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Distinguished Professorship in Medicine, which is held by William A. Peck, former executive vice chancellor and dean of the medical school. He is also a member of the Institute of Medicine and a nationally recognized leader in health care known for his research on bone and mineral metabolism.

Wolff is an admirer of Peck's 14-year leadership of the School, calling him a great unifier. Under his leadership, the School emerged as one of the nation's top medical schools and the most academically selective. She also has high hopes for his successor. "I think we have another excellent dean in Larry Shapiro," she says.

Her generosity is a reflection of her desire to do good. "I believe in giving money to further medical research because I think, through that effort, we will find a cure for many diseases." The areas of research she has chosen to support have grown to include Alzheimer's disease, cell biology and physiology, heart transplants, dermatology, bacterial sepsis, and critical care medicine.

She is Life Member of the William Greenleaf Eliot Society and a member of its Danforth Circle. Recognizing her exceptional generosity, the Board of Trustees presented her its most prestigious honor, the Robert S. Brookings Award, in 1996. The School of Medicine gave her its Second Century Award in 1997.

Dr. Peck, speaking of the impact of her commitments, says, "All of us who care deeply about serious research should join in thanking Mrs. Wolff for her wonderful generosity, and for what it will do to help us at Washington University unlock the mysteries of diseases and disorders yet to be conquered."

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton calls Edith Wolff "one of the University's most cherished contributors." He says: "She is extremely knowledgeable about what she wants to do and deeply committed to helping people—particularly those who have special needs. She is a very unassuming person who leads with modesty, but also with boldness by the sheer force of her example. We are fortunate to have such a generous supporter whose gifts have already facilitated critical medical research."

Despite having already created a remarkable legacy of helping others, Edith Wolff continues to commit herself and her resources to the creation of a better world with annual gifts and a generous bequest for medical research. Washington University is fortunate to be one of the partners she has chosen to help achieve her aspirations.

—John W. Hansford