Michael Jonas Wolff (1927 - 2016)

5 entries
  • "A beautifully written obituary honoring a most beautiful,..."
    - sloan Rankin Keck
  • "He was a dear man. My sympathies to his family and friends."
    - Laurie Runkle
  • "I miss our conversations, Michael, but your spirit lives on..."
    - Tina Swift
  • "Cheers to a life well lived, Michael Wolff!"
    - Hilary Rosenfeld
  • "Deepest sympathy and love always to Michael's family. ..."
    - nikki
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Service Information
Douglass Funeral Home
87 North Pleasant Street
Amherst, MA

AMHERST - Michael Jonas Wolff of Amherst, died peacefully Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016,at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, with family members at his side. He was 89 years old.

Born July 2, 1927, in London, he was the son of Joel Wolff, an antiques dealer, and Phyllis Goldhill Wolff Hershberg, a milliner and designer. He was astute till the end, quoting Shakespeare and joking, as a lifelong atheist, that he hoped he could watch soccer games from heaven.

Until his retirement in 1992, Wolff was a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for 22 years, specializing in Victorian literature. In 1994 he was the first recipient of the school's Vincent Dethier award for teaching, research and civility. He began his career at Indiana University in 1955, and was a fellow of the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University in 1969.

Wolff is a founding father of the field of Victorian studies and mentor to many scholars who followed him. At Indiana he founded Victorian Studies, one of the first interdisciplinary journals in the humanities, and now in its 58th volume. In the plethora of cheap 19th-century magazines and newspapers he discovered while working at the British Museum in the 1960's, he saw the world's first popular mass medium, and recognized the value of studying them as literature. He started the Victorian Periodicals Review and was founding president of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals (RSVP). The Michael Wolff Lecture is given in his honor at the society's annual gathering.

His life of the mind began when he was six, when he was sent to The Hall School, London, in 1933: he was at the top of his class in every subject except handwriting. During the Blitz he was moved from London to St. Edward's School in Oxford, considered a safe area. He won a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he studied Greek, Latin and Philosophy, and was mentored by John Wisdom and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In 1946 he and a fellow student founded the Intervarsity Club (then the Intervarsity Dance Club), a social club for students on vacation in London. It now has 41 branches and over 4,000 members. He served as a sergeant in the British army from 1948 to 1950.

Emigrating to the U.S. in 1951, Wolff received his master's degree and doctorate from Princeton. While there he met Sara Starr, a Columbia University graduate student in education, at a party in New York City. Four days later he proposed marriage by asking her to come with him to Bloomington, Indiana, where he had just been offered his first job. She said yes, and they were married for 57 years, raising three children, Jessica, Jeremy and Judith. With support from Michael, Sara completed a doctorate in psychology at the University of Massachusetts, practiced as a therapist, and wrote a book on her work called Vital Aging.

Following his retirement from UMass and for the rest of his life, Wolff continued his scholarly pursuits, including teaching Learning-in-Retirement seminars on George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, G.B. Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, and James Joyce. Many of these seminars he previewed to fellow residents of his beloved new community, Applewood Independent Living.

A competitive squash player, Wolff took up running late in life, completing the Boston Marathon at the age of 68. He resided in Amherst for 46 years and was committed to democracy at the local level. He served as a member of the Town Meeting, and in 2011 was elected a trustee of the Jones Library.

Wolff was a philosopher in the truest sense of the word, and a poet - he wrote love poems for Sara and doggerel for their children. His energy and curiosity, his wonder and humor, live on in his six grandchildren. Wolff pursued the work he loved through his final days, greatly aided by his research assistant, Elizabeth Lloyd-Kimbrel.

Sara Wolff died in 2012. Michael was predeceased by his sister Adrienne Ellen Rae Stark, and survived by Jessica Rachel Wolff, her husband Stephen Wanta, and their children Violet Starr Wolff Wanta and Ivy Marcella Wolff Wanta; Jeremy Joseph Wolff, his wife Dr. Julie Holland, and their children Molly Holland Wolff and Joseph Starr Wolff; and Judith Starr Wolff and her children, Zaro Alexandra Bates and Jonah Wolff Bates.

Michael Jonas Wolff's ashes were interred Thursday, Nov. 10, at a small ceremony at Wildwood Cemetery in Amherst. There will be a public memorial celebrating his life Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017, at 9:30 a.m. at the Jewish Community of Amherst, 742 Main St.

Memorial register at www.douglassfuneral.com.

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Published in Daily Hampshire Gazette on Dec. 3, 2016
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