Peter Christian Wolff, author, editor and social sciences consultant, passed away at his home in Brookfield, Connecticut on July 17, 2021 at the age of 98 from Parkinson’s Disease. Prior to moving to Connecticut in 2011, Peter lived in Concord and Acton, Massachusetts.
Peter Wolff was born on February 5, 1923 in Berlin, Germany, the son of Dr Georg Wolff and Ida Christiansen Wolff. After attending high school at the Arndt Gymnasium in Berlin, Peter emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1938 with his mother and elder sister, Renate Goepp. Peter’s father was Jewish and served as a medical doctor in the German army in the First World War. But he realized that even a Jewish doctor who had served his country had no future in Nazi Germany. So at the age of 51, Dr. Wolff emigrated to the United States in November 1937 after receiving an immigration visa when he was offered a fellowship by John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
Peter’s departure with his mother and sister aboard the North German Lloyd’s ocean liner Europa was suddenly halted in September 1938 when Germany and Great Britain appeared to be on the brink of war. Negotiations between Hitler and Britain’s prime minister Chamberlain had broken down over Hitler’s demand that Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland to Germany. The Europa was recalled to port in Germany and was only allowed to sail to the United States after Chamberlain agreed to Hitler’s demand to seize the Sudetenland, considered by historians to be an act of appeasement which led to Hitler’s decision to invade Poland in 1939 and the outbreak of World War Two.
Upon arriving in the United States, Peter attended Baltimore City College for one year and graduated from Hagerstown (Maryland) High School in 1940. Having mastered English, Peter attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland from 1940 to 1944. Education was something that Peter took much pride in. The official transcript from St. John’s shows that Peter graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree from St John’s on March 14, 1944, and was awarded the Gold Medal offered by St. John’s College “to that member of the graduating class who has attained the highest average in his four years’ work.”
Following his graduation in 1944 Peter worked as a tutor at St. John’s until 1945. (A tutor at St. John’s like Peter was an instructor similar to a present-day graduate assistant at a university.) George Comenetz, with whom Peter studied mathematics and physics at St. John’s, described Peter in a recommendation letter as follows:
“Mr. Wolff is a very able young man, especially in the physical sciences and mathematics. He has a quick, penetrating and logical mind, and thinks independently and originally. He is hard-working, and gifted at clear intelligent exposition. … He is pleasant, friendly, and dependable. He would do very well, either alone or in cooperation with others, at tasks requiring careful, intelligent and ingenious supplying of details for directions given in a general way.”
On April 6, 1945, “Peter Christian Wolff then residing at St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland” became a United States citizen at the Circuit Court of Anne Arundel County in Annapolis, according to his Certificate of Naturalization.
In 1946 Peter moved to Chicago, Illinois where worked for the Encyclopedia Britannica as an associate editor of the Syntopicon under the direction of the American philosopher, Mortimer Adler. The Syntopicon was a two-volume “idea index” for the Great Books of the Western World, a 54-volume set of the greatest works of literature, theology, science and philosophy beginning with Homer, and including St. Augustine, Cervantes, Newton and Darwin.
In December 1949 Peter married Patricia Nanette Stephens of Montclair, New Jersey. They met when she was a student at the University of Chicago and Peter was working at the Encyclopedia Britannica. In 1952 Peter was awarded his Master of Arts degree from St. John’s.
Peter and Patricia had three children, Peter, Ted and Tom. 1953 Peter moved his family to California where Mr. Adler had founded the Institute for Philosophical Research in San Francisco. His family settled in Palo Alto, California where Peter bought his first house, a contemporary style home designed by the architect Eichler in the Walnut Grove development.
Peter’s work ethic was spectacular. He would tell you himself that he never missed a single paycheck from the age of 21 to 65. He spent nearly 20 years working with Mortimer Adler on various projects relating to the Great Books of the Western World. As you can imagine Peter was very well read and loved books. Among his favorite authors were Saul Bellow and John Updike. He would later co-author a novel with his friend and colleague Abby Friedman, but the book was never published.
Besides his work as a writer and editor, Peter loved the outdoors. Patricia Wolff became a member of the Sierra Club in the 1950s and they went camping together with their three boys throughout the West. They took yearly camping trips to Yosemite National Park in California, and visited and camped at many other national parks and monuments such as Grand Canyon, Mt. Lassen, Crater Lake, Yellowstone, Olympia, Glacier, Dinosaur, Joshua Tree and the Badlands. Peter drove thousands of miles throughout the U.S. and Canada in his Ford and Chevy station wagons. On one summer vacation Peter drove across the country to visit Patricia’s parents in New Jersey, and then drove all the way back to California camping most of the way.
In the 1960s Peter achieved success as an author of a series of books starting with Breakthroughs in Mathematics (1963), which he followed up with Breakthroughs in Physics, Breakthroughs in Chemistry and Breakthroughs in Geography (1971) which he co-authored with William Warntz. In each of the “Breakthrough” series Peter presented the writings of the greatest scientists in each discipline with introductions and suggestions for further readings. The books were published as paperbacks by the New American Library and sold well for such scientific books. The first two books in the “Breakthroughs” series were also published in French and Danish.
In 1963 Peter moved to Illinois where he worked as an assistant to Adler for one more year before deciding to start a new career of his own. In 1964 Peter moved his family to Massachusetts and went to work for Educational Services, Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. where he developed high school and junior high school curricula in history and social sciences. He settled in Sudbury, Mass. where he bought a Deck House, a contemporary custom-built home and the first of three Deck Houses he and Patricia were to own in their lives.
In 1967 he went to work for Reader’s Digest in Chappaqua, New York with its new educational division. He settled in Ridgefield, Connecticut where he bought another custom-built Deck House. Although Peter’s time at Readers Digest did not last as long as he hoped when it closed its educational division, he met colleagues there who were beginning to invest in “mutual funds”. Peter had always saved his money wisely and he began investing in a mutual fund from the outset. He also invested in annuities which provided him with retirement income for many years after he retired. When he left Reader’s Digest Peter received a severance package which provided enough for all three of his sons to receive their education at private colleges and universities.
In 1971 he returned to Massachusetts to work for a new company called Abt Associates in Cambridge where he worked in its Human Development Area. He worked on numerous consulting projects including a contract at the National Drug Abuse Training Institute in Washington DC, and environmental impact statements for the Great Northern Paper Company of Maine, and the Federal Highway Administration. Peter worked for Abt Associates for 17 years and finished his working career with Abt before retiring in 1989.
Traveling was one of Peter’s greatest joys, both in the United States and abroad. Peter managed to visit all 50 states in the United States the last of which was North Dakota on a trip he took with his son Ted to Fort Mandan. Although he had travelled to Europe, West Germany and the Soviet Union in 1963, he visited Berlin again in 1990 with a friend from work. They each took a photo of each other with their heads in a hole through the Berlin Wall which had been torn down in 1989. Peter’s trips abroad included Australia and New Zealand (1994), Tahiti (1992), Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (1989-1990), Mexico (1988), Greece (1999) as well as several trips to Spain, France and Italy. Peter always wrote about his trips upon his return and kept his travelogues in his photograph albums from each trip.
Among the other books Peter edited and collaborated on are Mortimer Adler’s two-volume set The Idea of Freedom (1958), Yves Simon’s On Free Will (1969-70) and the 10-volume set The Great Ideas Program (1959-1961), vols. 1 (Introduction to the Great Books), 2 (Development of Political Theory and Government), 3 (Foundations of Science and Mathematics) and 5 (Philosophy of Law and Jurisprudence).
Peter is survived by his three sons, Peter Jr. of Kailua, Hawai’i, Ted of Chicago, Illinois, and Tom of Bethel, Connecticut, and their wives Miriam Abelaye, Peggy Wolff, and Vicky Wolff. He is also survived by four grandchildren, Jorge Wolff and Patricia Hutchinson of Connecticut, and Jonathan Wolff and Alex Wolff of Hawai’i, and five great-grandchildren, Julien, 19, Aiden, 14, Mary, 10, Kylie, 8, and Bennett, 4. Peter was predeceased by his former wife, Patricia Stephens Wolff, of Carlisle, Massachusetts.
Peter moved to Connecticut in 2011 to be closer to his family in Bethel. Peter’s mind stayed sharp until his 90s, and he loved to read and look at his old photo albums with his family and caregivers. Peter did a wonderful job saving and investing throughout his life. For this, Peter ensured he had the best care possible for himself as he got older. Over his life he owned 4 homes, a condominium and over 15 cars.
Much of the information about Peter and his family history was obtained from a self-published memoir Peter published in 2001, Travels and Travails Across Two Centuries, Two Cultures, a Memoir by Peter Wolff. Though we wish we could have had another 98 years with our Dad and Grandpa Peter, he left a wonderful legacy to the Wolff family. We can only hope that his love for books and his thirst for knowledge about everything continues down his family tree for many years to come.
There will be a celebration of Peter’s life at Bethel United Methodist Church on Saturday September 4, 2021 at 10:30 AM. He will be buried at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois.
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