Remembering Ed Wolff (1924-2017)

Celebration of his life and work at NCAR planned for June 11

May 16, 2017 | Edwin Lynn Wolff, who played an instrumental role in the development of the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Mesa Laboratory, recently passed away at his home at The Academy in Boulder. He was 92.

Wolff was a reporter and editorial writer for The Denver Post when he was assigned in 1961 to write a story about the establishment of NCAR in Boulder. He interviewed Walter Orr Roberts, NCAR's first director, and the story ran on a full page in the newspaper's Sunday edition.

"I got the greatest compliment for anything I'd ever written because once (Roberts) read it he called me up and offered me a job," Wolff said in an oral history taken by the Boulder Public Library in 2009. Wolff worked the next 27 years at NCAR, serving as a special assistant in the director's office.

Wolff and colleague Mary Andrews, whom he would marry in 1963, worked closely with architect I.M. Pei as he designed the iconic Mesa Lab against the backdrop of foothills known as the Flatirons in south Boulder. "We both thought it was the most enjoyable project we worked on during our careers at NCAR," said Mary Wolff.

Mary and Ed Wolff
Mary and Ed Wolff attending NCAR's 40th anniversary celebration in October 2000 at the Mesa Lab. (©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)


"Symbolically, it's an important reflection of the pioneering, exploratory kind of science that needed to be done," Ed Wolff said during the oral history interview. He also recalled that "I.M. Pei was a very nice person to work with, but very strong minded."

Wolff was born in New York City, but spent most of his childhood in Savannah, Georgia. He attended Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and was at Yale University when World War II intervened. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in Denver as a meteorologist, an interest that would draw him eventually back to Denver and later to NCAR.

"He described himself as being a 'nine-month wonder meteorologist' since such training after the war took four years," Mary Wolff said.

After the war, he returned to Yale, earning a bachelor's degree in history, and then acquired a master's degree in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley. He worked for the Democratic National Committee during the 1954 elections, before starting his journalism career at a newspaper in Bayonne, N.J., and then The Denver Post.

The NCAR job offer wasn't tied to a specific position, Wolff recalled. "Walt didn’t really like to specify things too much. I asked him … how I would identify myself to the outside world, and he said, 'Just say you’re in my office.' So that’s what I did."

Karyn Sawyer, who spent 44 years at NCAR and UCAR, including a stint as a special assistant to the NCAR director, described Wolff as a "consummate writer."

"Every year when NCAR produced its required program plan (to the National Science Foundation), Ed would take the myriad draft contributions from all the science programs and would write them into a seamless whole," she said.

Betty Valent said Wolff, whose role included budget director, was "ahead of his time" when he hired her to a shared administrative assistant position in 1984.

"His administrative assistant, Charlene Bandurian, was expecting her first child and wanted to work two and a half days a week," Valent said. "Twenty hours a week was ideal for me, and I was delighted when I got the job."

In addition to his interest in meteorology, Wolff had a passion for the outdoors, enjoying skiing, hiking, backpacking, cycling, and running. Many of these were done with Mary, including cycling in Canada, England, France, and Ireland.

Richard Anthes, then a division director, remembers a day in the mid-1980s when NCAR had a planning retreat in Keystone, more than 75 miles from Boulder.

"I thought I was a pretty good cyclist then, but Ed put me to shame when he rode his bike to the retreat from his office in the Mesa Lab!" the former NCAR director and UCAR president emeritus recalled. "Except for the first mile, it was all uphill, and Ed made it without a hitch, arriving tired and famished, just as we were enjoying a glass of wine before dinner."

Wolff also had a passion for music. He began singing and composing music while at Yale, performing with the Whiffenpoofs and the Glee Club. Later, he was a founding member of a men's a capella singing group in the Denver-Boulder area called the New Wizard Oil Combination, which still exists today.

After retiring from NCAR, Wolff focused on composition and, at various times, served as president of the Boulder Philharmonic and of the Colorado Music Festival.

"Dad gave me his love of music and his deep knowledge of the Great American Songbook," said son Bob Wolff, who focused on the oboe in college and later became a music recording producer and engineer. "Had he not nurtured my love of music, I would be a far different person today." He also loved as a child seeing the great "toys" at the Mesa Lab, where his dad worked, including the giant computer in the basement and the coronal telescope/camera in the lobby.

Daughter Liz Wolff said her father gave her the belief that she could do math and science. "I still remember him working really hard when I was in about the third grade to help me think through how negative numbers multiplied together make a positive number. He was doing everything, including pacing out steps on the floor." Liz Wolff went on to get a physics degree at Carleton College in Minnesota.

In addition to his wife and children, Ed Wolff is survived by stepchildren Linda Andrews Cowan, Kent Andrews, and Lesley Andrews; five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Donations in his honor may be made to the Colorado Music Festival or the University of Colorado College of Music.

A celebration of Wolff's life is scheduled to take place on June 11 at 10:30 a.m. in the chapel room at The Academy, 970 Aurora Ave., in Boulder.

Boulder Daily Camera obituary

Jeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer