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Mary Wolfe: 1931-2014; Area arts leader ‘full of joy’

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Mary T. Wolfe, an artist, art historian, and art lecturer widely known as a generous patron of the arts, died Thursday at ProMedica Toledo Hospital after suffering a stroke earlier in the week. She was 82.

She’d been recuperating after an atrial valve was replaced about six weeks ago, her daughter Christine said.

Mrs. Wolfe, a longtime Perrysburg Township resident, received the 2011 Governor’s Award for the Arts from the Ohio Arts Council in the arts patron category.

“We were best friends,” said Susan Reams, a longtime local arts advocate who received the state award in 2008. “Mary was full of joy, and she surrounded herself with beauty in her life. She was generous, but she also cared so much about individual artists.

“Mary loved the arts, and it showed,” Mrs. Reams said.

The Wolfe Center for the Arts at Bowling Green State University, where Mrs. Wolfe was a graduate student, instructor, and gallery director, opened in 2011 and includes theaters and other performance spaces and classrooms.

Mrs. Wolfe and her husband, Frederic “Fritz,” in 2005 donated $1.5 million to help build the $41 million center. That seed money brought support from other benefactors and state funds. The couple’s encouragement also led BGSU to engage internationally recognized architecture firm Snohetta of Norway to design the building.

“She was the matriarch of the arts in northwest Ohio,” said Mary Ellen Mazey, president of BGSU.

In 2010, the Toledo Museum of Art announced that Mrs. Wolfe and her husband had given $2 million to renovate a gallery into a home for modern artwork.

Toledo Museum of Art Director Brian Kennedy described Mrs. Wolfe as one of the region’s greatest art supporters, who attracted full houses to her art history lectures, believed in the value of arts education, and strongly supported engaging children in the arts.

Her passion for art was matched by her knowledge of it and interest in the lives of artists, and she freely shared her art philosophy, that “all art was contemporary once,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Generous with her time, financial support, and knowledge, Mrs. Wolfe also consulted with the museum to ask what pieces from her own art collection the museum would like to have, Mr. Kennedy said.

“Whatever one had was to be shared, and that started with her personality and her knowledge,” he said.

She was a founding member of the Apollo Society, a group that assists the museum in acquiring artwork. In 2001, she and Mrs. Reams co-chaired the museum’s centennial celebration in which the Peristyle was turned into a ballroom. Both had been on the museum board and on the Ohio Arts Council. The best friends joined forces to oversee the creation and installation at the Valentine Theatre of a mural — 10 feet tall and 68½ feet long, by artist Paul Geiger — that depicts performers who appeared at the storied venue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Her husband was involved with what became Health Care & Retirement Corp. and Health Care REIT, as well as other businesses. The couple were benefactors of the University of Toledo, the Toledo Opera, the Toledo Symphony, and Maumee Valley Country Day School, where Mr. Wolfe went to school. In 1993, they donated $1 million to Wilberforce University for a new administration building.

“There was always a strong educational component of whatever they were supporting,” daughter Christine said.

Mrs. Wolfe threw parties in her home and led charitable events to support a broad spectrum of the arts. “She had a good social ability and was friendly and was inclusive, and she understood artists,” her daughter Frederica said.

She was born Dec. 25, 1931, to Elizabeth and Stanley Wentworth Tebbetts. Through eighth grade, she went to the public schools of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and then attended the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. She was a graduate of Manchester, N.H., Senior High School.

She received a bachelor of arts in the history of art from Wellesley College in 1954.

In the mid-1950s, she became a blueprint designer and technician for the building division of Lima Lumber Co., of which her husband was an owner. She was a set designer and assistant to the theater department director at Ohio Northern University from 1956-58 and taught art education and art history at its extension school. From 1962-68, she was an interior decorator of the Leader Store in Lima.

She received a master of arts degree in the history of art and painting in 1968 from BGSU and for the next eight years was an instructor in the history of art. She continued to lecture for decades after, in the United States and abroad. Jackson Pollock was the subject of her last lecture in March in North Palm Beach, Fla., where she and her husband wintered.

“She was very animated and made the art works come alive,” daughter Christine said.

Katerina Ruedi Ray, director of BGSU’s school of art, spent time studying and contemplating art alongside Mrs. Wolfe, whom she considered a friend and mentor. The two met soon after Ms. Ray arrived in Bowling Green in 2002, and she recalled a day the two spent at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“She stopped in front of practically every piece,” Ms. Ray remembered. “We would just gasp, and she would gasp and say, ‘Oh my God, I had forgotten that this was here.’ ”

Mrs. Wolfe, from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, was director of exhibitions for the McFall Center Gallery. Her primary fields of interest included Greek and Roman classical and Italian Renaissance art. But one exhibit at McFall might feature the works of Dominick Labino, a pioneer in the studio glass movement, while another might be contemporary and controversial.

“She was always pushing the edge of what defines art,” her daughter Christine said. “She loved the conversation, the dialogue of what art is and how it can make all of our lives more meaningful, even if it makes us uncomfortable.”

Surviving are her husband, Frederic “Fritz” Wolfe, whom she married Aug. 7, 1954; daughters, Elizabeth Wolfe, Frederica Wolfe, and Christine Wolfe Nichols, and six grandchldren.

Arrangements are pending through the Witzler-Shank Funeral Home, Perrysburg.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: mzaborney@theblade.com or 419-724-6182.

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