James Harold Wolfgang (1922-2015) – A Remembrance by James Stephen Wolfgang
Remarks read at my father’s funeral, which included hymns, selected by the family from a list of those Dad often led, sung by the audience: Soldiers of Christ, Arise! — There Is a Habitation — In the Morning of Joy
Many thanks to my friend David Malcomson, a deacon at the church of Christ in Downers Grove, who has come down from the western suburbs of Chicago to lead us in song today; and to Josh Coles for his remarks. My brother John also has some comments to follow after I finish. Josh’s remarks reminded me in part of the inscription on the grave marker of the original Wolfgang ancestor, Johann Nicolaus Wolfgang (1711-1790), nine generations before me, who came through the port of Philadelphia in 1732 and settled in the Pennsylvania “Dutch” (Deutsch) area near Lancaster and York, PA – where he lived and farmed when the Continental Congress fled when chased out of Philadelphia by the British Army during the American Revolution. If you were to go to the old Stone Church in southern Pennsylvania, near the Mason-Dixon line, you would read on his marker the sobering admonition, in German, roughly translated as: “Take heed, all who pass by – this too shall be your end.”
And thank you all for coming so that we might pay proper respect to my father, and remember his life’s work. I want to share, briefly, some memories of my Dad, distilled to two pages. While it is my intent to praise him with recollections of fond memories, I know well that my father was not perfect, and he would have no wish to make him so. To repeat a phrase, I would not enlarge him in death beyond what he was in life, but rather remember him simply as a good and decent man. In many ways, he was an ordinary guy who, with the help of the Lord and my mother, accomplished some extra-ordinary things – chiefly through his diligent devotion to Christ, and to Christ’s church.
Upon reading my father’s obituary, my good friend Matt Bassford wrote, “May the Lord feature as prominently in all our obituaries!” Another old friend, Mike Willis, remarked, “This world no longer held anything for him.” Due respect to Mike, that is true – with one major exception: my mother, Jean, the apple of his eye, the love of his life, his bride of 68 years, whom I heard him praise frequently to us, his children, and others, as the source of much of whatever good our family experienced and accomplished. When Dad was leaving Community Hospital 6 months ago, recovering from the pneumonia which dictated his move to Westminster Village, one of the nurses who had cared for him for a week murmured to my mother, “Not many people can say they have been married to the same person for 68 years!” Indeed.
He was a good Daddy to me – and to my siblings. Despite what my sister Janet may claim about me being the “favorite child,” the truth is that, while as the firstborn “rank doth have its privileges,” they too were treated well (and I note for the record that I WAS outnumbered 2-1)! Dad worked hard to provide his kids with numerous advantages – working overtime to pay for field trips, summer camps and study abroad as far away as Israel; paying private college tuitions because he wished his children to have a spiritual dimension to our education which was not available in less expensive state universities; and providing musical instruments including piano, organ, and various stringed instruments so that our lives could be enriched through the magic of music. In the file of digital photos you will find a picture of John and me standing in front of the shop of William Moening & Sons in Philadelphia – makers and importers of fine, classical musical instruments, which Dad bought for us. I played one of those expensive instruments for several years, and John then took over and performed on it in international competitions as a member of Bruce B. Fowler’s outstanding orchestras in Chicago and elsewhere.
Dad was not naturally musically gifted, but when the opportunity arose to learn how to serve the Lord’s people by leading a congregation in hymn worship, he devoted countless hours to learning and mastering the skill sets necessary to properly sound the pitch of a hymn and then direct it – LEAD! – with the correct beat pattern, thus uniting a congregation in melodious harmony. Under the instruction of several Christians who were also graduates of the renowned Indiana University School of Music, Dad became, in the words of one Christian who sang under his direction, “a great song leader.” While I too have learned about music from similarly-gifted music teachers, much of what I know about leading a congregation in song I learned first from James H. Wolfgang.
Dad inherited from his father, James O. Wolfgang, a love of intricate and interrelated machinery of many kinds, from the small-but-complex single-lens reflex camera he used often and cared for lovingly, to the huge multi-color web presses at the Indianapolis Star – huge machines which drank ink by the barrel and were fed forests of pulp so that Hoosiers could “read all about it” –which Dad took his son to observe and instruct in the chemistry of proper ink-and-water balance and other matters. In childhood I became fascinated with the marriage of man and machine, watching James H. Wolfgang, master of his craft, operate the one-man letter-press which resided in the basement of our house on Eustis Drive – each page carefully (and dangerously) hand-fed between speedy revolutions of cast-iron heavy metal. A careless person could easily mangle a hand – but Dad was not careless. While I never came close to mastering type-setting from a California job case, it was fascinating and challenging to try to learn it under his expert tutelage.
When the time came – dictated by changes which produced the transition of the printing craft from mechanical to digital, mandating the passing of a technological era – and led to his press being broken in pieces (an event I think I may have experienced more as a tragedy than did he), he said, simply, “I have no need of it any longer.” My Dad’s press was “rescued” and, in a sense immortalized, by a photo taken by Don Distel, my cousin Janet Jane’s husband – a photo which evermore graces the cover of a Howard Sams textbook, ironically, about HTML.
Dad’s love of fine machinery extended to his automobiles (lately, red Cadillacs), which he treated with lovingkindness. I can recall many a time when, as the oldest child, I was “privileged” to help him wash and wax our cars, with the help of his beloved chamois (a “Shammy” to us Hoosiers!) and a “whisk broom” – terms and items likely unknown to younger generations. He taught me the basics of how an automobile works, what is the use of a timing gun, or the importance of little things like installing a running light in 1961 to make the family car more visible and thus safer. One of my favorite memories was the winter we spent significant time together while constructing and assembling a 1/8-size, moving-parts model of an internal combustion engine.
Dad was a teacher of other things as well. Together, he and another Little League coach stayed late to help me overcome my petrification of being hit by a pitch hurled with all the precision of a 9-year-old’s arm. Imagine my joy to discover that I could actually hit the ball before it hit me – and could become a pretty fair hitter. Much more significantly, my first glimmer of the profundity of the concept of “justification by faith” came in a teenage class he taught on the book of Romans. Try doing that with a class of rowdy teens and you will not only discover the difficulty, but test patience and endurance as well!
In class teaching, functioning first as a deacon and then as an elder in two congregations, and serving as trusted treasurer of two churches, Dad did, as someone put it recently, “much of the unseen ‘grunt work’” which is necessary for any organization to function properly. He thus provided services and opportunities for others to worship God – including those who too often show up only to observe and criticize. Dad did this not because he craved the limelight, but because he knew that “a servant is not greater than his Master.” In the digital video, John included a photo of him working at his “desk” – the dining room table – where he sat to write out the monthly checks for evangelists supported by the church. Anyone who has preached, or was raised in a minister’s household, well understands the importance of maintaining that lifeline as Dad did – timely and regularly. I can recall him sitting us down, map of the world in hand, to show us where those checks went: “this one goes to Leslie Diestelkamp in Nigeria” or one “to Gordon Pennock in North Dakota,” or “that one to Piet Joubert in South Africa” or men in Japan or the Philippines or “parts unknown.” Talk about a powerful lesson in enabling others to evangelize overseas!
That dining room table was also an instrument of hospitality, another important lesson taught us by both my Dad and Mom. To be able to sit at table and share conversation – and the delicious food that Mom prepared! – with the likes of a James R. Cope, or Franklin T. Puckett, or a Robert F. Turner – preachers of renown in bygone days who are now largely forgotten by successive generations; men of wit and verbal skill and Godly devotion – made a lasting impression on me. And my parents’ “hospitality” extended outside the home: a recent visitor to Eastside described for me how meaningful it was to see both of my aged parents “wobble,” as she put it, “on their walkers, all the way across the building to greet me.” Small acts of kindnesses do live on in the memory of others. Thank you, Daddy!
“Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us” (Sirach 44:1).