University of Michigan
News for Faculty and Staff

June 18, 2018

Obituary: Arthur Coffman Wolfe

April 12, 2018

Obituary: Arthur Coffman Wolfe

Topic: Obituaries

Arthur Coffman Wolfe, 87, a long-time research associate and University of Michigan alumnus, died Dec. 28, 2017, at Pinecrest, the 114 year old Wolfe family enclave along Crystal Lake near Beulah, Michigan.

He received his doctorate in political science from U-M in 1966 and spent much of the rest of his life in Ann Arbor working on a variety of survey research projects in different university programs, including directing the Institute for Social Research’s National Election Studies and the U-M Transportation Research Institute’s National Roadside surveys. Other research and teaching took him and his family to Bad Godesberg, Germany; the University of California at Berkeley; Adelaide and Canberra, Australia; and International Christian University in Japan.

Arthur Coffman Wolfe

He was born in Pasadena, California, to Hugh and Ithmer Wolfe, who met while students at U-M. His father’s post-doctoral physics research involved living in six cities — including Utrecht, Netherlands – before settling in Tenafly, New Jersey, where Wolfe graduated as valedictorian, after spending his eighth-grade semester in a one-room school near his grandparents’ home in Coldwater, Michigan.

As an Oberlin College student, he co-founded what has become one of the most influential student dining and residential co-op networks in the country, began attending Quaker Meeting, and met his future wife, Shirley Penty. After a graduate year at Earlham College, he served as a conscientious objector in the U.S. Army Medical Corps before pursuing graduate work at the U-M in adult education and linguistics.

He then spent four years in Truk Atoll (now Chuuk) in the former U.S.-administered U.N. Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands in challenging living conditions as a teacher and administrator of an intermediate boarding school. He helped establish the orthography for producing educational materials in Trukese, assisted with the Outer Island Nama Co-Op Trading Company and translated old German anthropology manuscripts.

Two daughters were born before the family returned to Ann Arbor for his Ph.D. studies. Three sons, two by adoption, joined the family, which was often enhanced with international students. His love for adventure brought him and Shirley, often accompanied by various family members, on low-cost camping and travel in six continents.

Wolfe's quiet self-effacing personality and encyclopedic mind lay behind his kind eyes and wonderful smile. His greatest love was for his family, including five children, their spouses, and eight grandchildren, with whom he shared his values of education, integrity and activism for peace, justice and the environment.

He introduced bike helmets to Ann Arbor beginning in the late 1970s, selling them at cost, including through the city’s elementary schools. He carried clippers with him on his bike commute to trim overgrown bushes, and picked up trash wherever he went.

With frugality and persistence, he re-plumbed the entire house and summer cottage, and learned to bake healthy bread and cookies. As a young man, he hitchhiked more than 30,000 miles, returning home to vote in his first presidential election and from California to Ohio for his 1954 wedding. Always physically active, he was still playing tennis at age 85 just prior to being diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer.

His loving family took turns helping Shirley with his care during his months of challenging health issues. In November he wrote a final farewell to friends around the world, sharing his hopes for a more just and peaceful world.

Memorial celebrations will be held at 2 p.m. April 21 at the Ann Arbor Friends Meetinghouse and on Aug. 11 at Crystal Lake. Memorial donations can be made to his favorite charity, 350.org, an active global grassroots movement to prevent climate change.

— Submitted by the Wolfe family