Dr. Charles Hull Wolfe is a historian, renowned creative director, and retired advertising executive. He also serves as president of the Plymouth Rock Foundation. Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values. This interview provides a fascinating look back at some major movements and ideas of the past 100 years, from progressivism, Marxism, and conservatism, to free markets, Christian education, and America’s Christian history.
Dr. Paul Kengor: Dr. Wolfe, you’ve led a fascinating life. From a remarkable career in advertising to your work in free-market education and Christian education. But let’s start from the beginning, which, in your case, is quite interesting: When were you born, and who were your parents?
Wolfe: I was born in New York City on June 5th, 1919—from a liberal, college-professor Dad and a conservative get-things-done Mom.
Kengor: Your mother was not political. You called her an “old-fashioned working girl, a non-philosophical American free-enterpriser.” That’s not the case with your father. Your father, Dr. Ernest J. Wolfe, studied and taught with Ruth Bryan Owen, who was the daughter of the great William Jennings Bryan, the liberal Democrat of her day, and was ensconced at the University of Miami at Coral Gables, Florida. But your father ended up moving quite far to the left, politically. He became a Marxist, right?
Wolfe: Yes, became a Marxist as an all-out personal conviction, but that was not something he advocated on the job. Dad never especially publicized his Marxism.
Kengor: Your father ended up at Columbia University? Was this in the 1930s? What department?
Wolfe: Yes, in the 1930s, in the economics and history departments. At Columbia University, and the University of Miami he taught economics with the intention to provide a historic background that would show that the American people faced some sort of economic crisis, and various parts of the population, such as the elderly or the unemployed, needed some kind of social security from the U.S. government.
My Dad’s proposal resulted in the Social Security system America has today.
Kengor: He was close to Columbia economists like R.G. Tugwell, correct? Tugwell was well-known for his interest in the Soviet experiment, as recently profiled in Amity Shlaes’ book, The Forgotten Man. (For the record, Ms. Shlaes will be the keynote at our conference on progressivism next April.)
Wolfe: The only kind of economics my Dad wanted me to teach was socialism, but I never did, and l never promised to. He may have kind of dreamed of me going out and winning thousands of ignorant students to socialism, just as I aspired to win them to Christ, but my Dad never succeeded in winning me to any of his radical views.
Essentially, my Dad felt things I never felt. He felt rich Americans were bad, that there was no right or moral way for one person to earn or get a lot more money than other people had. He felt that essentially all Americans should have about the same amount of money or wealth, and that it should come from a generous government, from Uncle Sam, not from energetic individuals acquiring land or building a uniquely useful business, or selling exceptionally valuable products.
You asked how my father sought to make me a communist. Was it by giving me persuasive literature or certain books? Yes, and there are loads of those, but I didn’t find them either very interesting or convincing. I told my father I had enough to read for school—first for high school, then for college. Like most boys, I needed some time for recreation and some time for sports. Dad felt both were more or less a waste of time. We also disagreed on religion.
I felt religion was not just a ritual or a routine, that God existed, that He was real, that He loved me, that He loved everyone, and that He could bless everyone far more than He was currently, and that people first have to open themselves up to Him, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” My Dad expressed his religious beliefs toward me by sending me to the Ethical Culture Sunday School.
Kengor: Had not your father raised you to be a devoted Marxist, and to crusade for Marxism among college students? Is it true (George Cahill told me this) that you were literally conceived to be a communist? Or, at the least, that this you’re your father’s intention in having a child? (I’m sure it wasn’t your mother’s intention.)
Wolfe: It was never overtly stated as such. However, as my life unfolded it could very well have been so.
Kengor: How did your father try to make that happen? Did he give you communist literature? Did he send you to CPUSA meetings? Did he have you meet with party representatives around the country?
Instead, you went to the University of Arizona—which you chose because of the warm climate, and because you had serious health problems, then went to Mexico and had a religious experience, and your father, who in addition to being a Marxist, was a non-believer, an agnostic or atheist. He didn’t approve of your conversion, did he? How did your father react when you told him you had rejected his dream of his son being a Marxist?
Wolfe: By and large, when my father found I had no particular interest in his scheme for my life, he lost interest in my career.
Kengor: When you rejected that goal of your father, is it true that your father rejected you?
Wolfe: When he found I was not going to play out the dream he had conceived for my life, I would say he literally lost interest in my life.
Kengor: Your father left Columbia to work for FDR and the Social Security Board. Did you have much contact with your father after these New Deal years, and after the two of you split over Marxism?
Wolfe: No, once my father, Ernest J. Wolfe, left Columbia to work for FDR and his Social Security Board, he broke with all his past—with his wife, i.e., my mother and with me.
Kengor: Ultimately, you ended up earning a very successful living in advertising. For which firms did you work? You wrote a bestselling textbook on advertising?
Wolfe: I joined a radio station, WSTC, and wrote everything for the Stamford, Connecticut radio station, commercials, then joined a Brooklyn, New York station, WLIB, and wrote everything for them.
That prepared me to become a radio writer for the great advertising agency in New York, Batten, Batton, Durstine & Osborn, otherwise known as BBDO, where I wrote a best-selling textbook, Modern Radio and TV Advertising published by Funk & Wagnalls, which made me relatively famous, and I accepted a position as Television and Radio Creative Director of McCann-Erickson. This was challenging, lucrative and exciting, but left me little time for anything but my job.
I negotiated a new relationship with McCann-Erickson, through negotiation with Marion Harper Jr., the chief executive, in which I cut my work-time (and salary) in half, moved to California, and devoted the rest of my time to developing serious interests.
Kengor: Certainly you developed a very serious interest in economics, and actually joined the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education. How did that come about? Can you tell us about that experience? Did you encounter our own Hans Sennholz there?
Wolfe: I certainly did. I got to know and greatly admire Hans Sennholz. I also came to know and admire a man that Hans would agree was the world’s greatest economist, Ludwig von Mises.
Kengor: You also became concerned with the tragic drift to the extreme left by American higher education. Tell us what you saw in higher education, and when? Which colleges, in your view, have stayed true to both faith and freedom, including a respect for market freedom?
Wolfe: That is a profound and complex question I would not like to answer here in the midst of this casual conversation. It is a question which for a long time did not need to be asked, but now does need to be. It makes choosing a college much more difficult.
Kengor: You sent your son, Gregory, to Hillsdale. Gregory is an excellent scholar and writer, whose work includes a superb biography of Malcolm Muggeridge. You’re a big fan of both Hillsdale and Grove City College. Tell us about that.
Wolfe: To a large extent, America’s original intellectual foundation was built around a handful of distinguished colleges—beginning with Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia. In the last century, and especially in the Great Depression, as we lost confidence in our country’s original foundations—in the Bible and Pilgrim and Puritan scholarship, we began to accept a new array of secular liberal European scholars into our premier universities, who moved them leftward, eroded their colleges’ character, confused their teaching of history, and opened the way for a new wave of truth-seeking colleges such as Hillsdale and Grove City.
To make a firm point of reference, referring to someone we both know—or are somewhat familiar with—after high school, Greg was determined to attend Harvard. I talked with him at length, and introduced him to Dr. George Roche, the young and very bright president of Hillsdale; they talked at great length, and Dr. Roche introduced Greg to one of Hillsdale’s most distinguished Professors, Dr. Russell Kirk. After several hours of conversation, they became fast friends. Greg came to me and said, “Dad, I don’t want to go to Harvard. I want to go to Hillsdale.” Greg never regretted that decision.
Kengor: You also developed a deep interest in America’s Christian history. You’ve done a lot of lecturing on that subject over the years. Tell us about that. Tell us also about your work with the late D. James Kennedy and Coral Ridge Ministries.
Wolfe: I came to admire Dr. Kennedy’s knowledge of America’s Christian history simply as a listener. Then he invited me to join his ministry in Fort Lauderdale, and it was a great pleasure. Among my students there was a talented young man named Dr. Jerry Newcombe who became Dr. Kennedy’s senior producer of his television productions. In his fine volume, The Book That Made America, he devoted the entire first page to a letter from me!
Kengor: How does all of this tie in to your involvement with the Plymouth Rock Foundation? You live today in Plymouth, Massachusetts. We’re approaching the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth Landing of the Pilgrims?
Wolfe: Twenty-five years ago, in celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ famous landing, a great Christian musician, the marimba artist Dr. Jack Conner, played a concert sponsored by one of Plymouth’s leading citizens, John G. Talcott Jr. In a discussion after the concert, Mr. Talcott asked Dr. Conner for his ideas about how Plymouth should celebrate that event. The marimba artist said, “I know a man who’s written very well about the Pilgrims, a New Yorker named Dr. Charles Hull Wolfe. I’d like to ask him about his ideas.” That’s what Dr. Conner did.
He came to New York on a concert, talked to me about Plymouth, invited me to come with him on a visit to Mr. Talcott, which I promptly did. Finding there was not a single organization devoted solely to perpetuating the spiritual significance of the Pilgrims, and enriching the religious understanding of their lives, I proposed that Mr. Talcott and I, then and there, form such an institution. He quickly agreed, brought a competent attorney to his home, and together we drew up the document; thus was born The Plymouth Rock Foundation.
Kengor: Dr. Wolfe is there anything else you would like to say?
Wolfe: Yes, I would like to speak with you again sometime to share what I perceive to be the strategy to help lead Americans back to our deep spiritual roots of true liberty. The Biblical Principle Approach to Education. Whether by Home School or Christian School the overwhelming empirical evidence is in. By giving our current generation, as well as future generations, a Biblical World View and the ability to reason from a Biblical Principled Approach, we will free the slaves to secular humanism that now have them all in chains.
Kengor: Dr. Charles Hull Wolfe, you’re a true apostle of faith and freedom. Thank you very much for talking to us.
Wolfe: Thank you for having me. I have thoroughly enjoyed sharing what the Lord has done in and through me these past 90 years. May the Lord bless your efforts and writings.