ITHACA - Emmylou Wolff, of Ithaca, died at Sterling House on Monday (Sept. 24, 2013) at the age of 88, with her devoted husband holding her hand and her family by her side.
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Emmylou was a child of the prairie, having been born in the golden, rolling hills of South Dakota. Her father, a cowboy, met and married a young woman homesteading on her own – the intrepid gal had come to the territory and staked her claim to land before South Dakota was even a state. They had five children, one of whom died as an infant. Emmylou was the middle child and the only girl.
The Great Depression, unemployment and devastating dust storms wreaked economic havoc on the young farm family. Emmylou's aunt and uncle in Germany heard of their plight and offered to take in and educate one of the children for a year. Fourteen-year-old Emmylou, being interested in art, elected to be that child. Off she went to live and study in Europe, and she could not have been more excited. It was 1939.
Within months of her arrival, Hitler invaded Poland, and Emmylou's Berlin family realized that it was not safe for her to be there. They booked her on the next ship back home to America. In a twist of fate, Emmylou got appendicitis, landed in the hospital and, literally, missed the boat. She was stranded with her family in Germany for the next seven years, unable even to communicate with anyone back home for much of that time. Her parents believed her to be dead.
Air-raid sirens, bunkers, bombings, hunger and the loss of friends were all part of Emmylou's experience. One day the police came and took her to jail as an "enemy alien." Her aunt went up the chain of command to Heinrich Himmler's deputy, shamed him for arresting a mere child, and, after promising to take full responsibility for her, secured her release. The Gestapo kept her under their watchful eye and she had to report to them once a week. When the Russian troops arrived (who were Allies with the U.S.), the fact that she was an American helped to save her and those hiding with her.
Emmylou was able to attend the local school for her first years in Germany. Once she reached university level there was no art major, so she became a top architecture student. In the later years of the war, many of the schools were shut down, and, as a foreign national, she was not welcome to study further. After the war she worked for the famous "G2" unit of the U.S. Army Intelligence System, translating documents of all kinds. Her earnings helped to buy food for her German family.
In 1946, nearly a year after Germany surrendered, Emmylou was issued Passport No. 8 by the Consulate General of the U.S. in Berlin, good for one passage. She came home on the first ship carrying non-military personnel - a refugee ship filled with survivors who had been liberated from concentration camps. She was still in shock from the war years. Emmylou's father and mother, having gotten word that she was alive, met her at the port in New York City for a joyful reunion.
She stayed in New York City, majored in art at Barnard College and began to build her portfolio. The creative work there, as well as fellowship and prayer with the Episcopal Church community, were instrumental in restoring her emotional health.
In the summer of 1948, Emmylou was awarded a scholarship to a Maine Audubon camp for teachers and youth leaders to study ornithology and other natural sciences. There she met a handsome California native who was a merchant mariner and had served in dangerous waters overseas during the war. They fell in love and married in New York City in 1949. Nearly a decade into their relationship, before the birth of their third child, the sailor, John "Jack" Wolff, had a calling and entered the priesthood.
Emmylou created award-winning quilts and continued to draw and paint while raising their children in rectories in New York State, first in Dover Plains, then in Mohawk and later in Watervliet. She did secretarial work in offices, carried out the duties and responsibilities of a priest's wife and, with Jack, was an active leader in the Episcopal Church's "Marriage Encounter" for many years.
In 1982, they moved to Pusan, South Korea, where Jack was a Chaplain with the Anglican Communion's Missions to Seamen (now called Mission to Seafarers). They came home to the States abruptly that same year when Emmylou was diagnosed with breast cancer. After surgery and radiation treatments, chemotherapy was begun in New York City and completed after their return to South Korea. Emmylou taught English to Koreans, and they relished their wonderful years in Pusan.
Emmylou and Jack "retired" to their home in rural Cuba, south of Buffalo, in 1988. There Jack served as an Interim Rector at two different Episcopal parishes, and as a supply priest at several others. The couple bird watched, hiked, gardened and spent happy years with their beloved dalmation, Bo. A series of health challenges led them to sell their home in 2009, and move to an apartment at Sterling House in Ithaca, where Jack lives today.
Emmylou is survived by her husband of 63 years, Father John L. "Jack" Wolff; three children, Cathryn J. (Glenn) Gray of Salamanca, Christopher T. (Michele "Mimi") Wolff of Interlaken and Abigail (Michael Mariani) Wolff of Manhattan; eight grandchildren; 12 great-grandchildren; a sister-in-law, Renata Schemmer of South Carolina; and many nieces and nephews.
In addition to her parents, Emmylou was preceded in death by her three brothers, Clinton, Fred and Benjamin Schemmer.
A funeral Mass will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday (Sept. 28, 2013) at the Church of the Epiphany, 11 Elm St., Trumansburg, with Father Gurdon Brewster officiating. The burial will follow immediately at Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve in Newfield. If you plan to attend the burial, please bring hiking boots, sneakers or comfortable walking shoes as there is a lengthy path with uneven terrain to the site.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks those who wish to remember Emmylou to kindly consider a contribution to the Church of the Epiphany, P.O. Box 459, Trumansburg, NY 14886; Holy Cross Monastery, P.O. Box 99, West Park, NY 12493, www.holycrossmonastery.com; or Episcopal Relief "Healing a Hurting World", www.episcopalrelief.org.
The family has entrusted arrangements to the Ness-Sibley Funeral Home, 23 South St., Trumansburg, 1-888-534-5446, www.ness-sibley.com.
Ness-Sibley Funeral Home
23 South St
Trumansburg, NY 14886
Published in The Olean Times Herald on Sept. 26, 2013