Philip George Wolff, 95, a Saranac Lake resident and florist for decades and an Adirondacker well known for his public service and wry wit, died Thursday February 3, 2011, at his western home in San Diego.
Phil, as he was known to friends and several governors, was the oldest living licensed bobsled driver, the chief of staff of the 1980 Winter Olympic Organizing Committee, and the proud founder of the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Museum. He achieved State Historical Site recognition in 2009 and National Historic Site recognition in 2010 for the 1932 Mt Van Hoevenburg Bobsled Run. Phil’s hand-restored 1921 Model T nicknamed “Jezebel” was donated to the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, NY.
Phil was a veteran of WW II, serving in the Army Corps of Engineers in the South Pacific from 1943 to 1945. At the end of the war, he was among the troops sent to occupy Japan, where he and several fellow soldiers on an assignment there just six days after the atomic bombings that ended the war saw a road sign for Nagasaki, and out of curiosity, detoured into the heart of the destroyed city and took photos of one another at ground zero. The adventure became one of the many stories of his incredible life that Phil loved to tell, showing the snapshots that proved it. He received the Purple Heart, Silver Star and other citations before returning to Saranac Lake and a reunion with his wife Elsie (Hughes) Wolff, who had built up their business during the war years and given birth to their first daughter, Cynthia, during his absence. Phil served an additional 17 years as an Army Reserve officer, starting an Army Reserve unit at Paul Smith’s College. He retired with the rank of Captain.
Born in Buffalo on October 19, 1915, he attended Cornell University where he was a member of the ski team and met his wife of 70 years. Another of his favorite stories was of the night he was playing bridge with classmates, discussing whom they were going to invite to an upcoming campus event. When a fellow card player said he was going to invite Elsie Hughes, Phil excused himself from the table the next time he was dummy, went to a phone and asked her himself.
Phil, who earned the money for college by selling furs he trapped on his way to and from high school, took a year off from college for his first job, that of designing and constructing Saranac Lake’s Riverside Park in 1937, before graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in landscape architecture in 1938. Elsie gave him an ultimatum — he could be a farmer without her or a florist with her, and they were married in 1940, opening and operating a greenhouse in Ray Brook that year and a florist shop in Saranac Lake called Wolff Your Florist, which closed in 1981, having delivered thousands of distinctive white corsage boxes to young women over the decades.
Phil became an early 46er in 1940. He loved hiking the High Peaks (in moccasins) with his scouting friend Frosty Bradley. Adirondack Life magazine published his memoir of those trips and his meetings with hermit Noah Rondeau in the April/May, 2010 edition, making Phil, then 94, perhaps the oldest author to have an article published in the magazine, complete with photos he took of Rondeau. He was proud of his paycheck from the publication.
Phil was active in the community, serving as president of Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club. He was a member of the Town Board of North Elba, Chairman of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, a member of the Northwood School Board of Directors, the Saranac Lake Golf Course Board of Directors, He also was the Treasurer of the Cornell Alumni Association Class of 1938 (until his death), and a founding member and treasurer of AdkAction.org, an Adirodack advocacy group founded in 2006 when he was in his early 90s. He was elected Town Justice of the Town of North Elba in 1960 and served for 16 years, performing many marriages including those of his children. He was seen during Winter Carnival over the years with other Rotarians as Miss Piggy, among other caricatures. In San Diego, California where he and Elsie took up winter residence in 1987, he enjoyed serving turkey to the “older folks,” most of whom were younger than he, at the Poway Rotary Thanksgiving Dinner for Senior Citizens.
Phil was an Eagle Scout and member of Troop 1 in Barker, NY, where he returned in 2010 to bestow the Eagle badge on their latest recipient in August, 2010. He founded the first Boy Scout Troop in Saranac Lake in 1939.
Phil was a member of the 1976 and 1980 Winter Olympic bid committees. In 1978 he was appointed Chief of Staff of the 1980 Winter Olympic Organizing Committee, a position he held until the LPOOC’s closure in 1987, volunteering his time during the last three years of that assignment. He also served as chief of the Security Committee for the 1980 Games. One of his proudest accomplishments was being the founder and president of the 1932 and1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Museum, where he remained on the board until his death. He was inducted into the Lake Placid Hall of Fame in 2002.
Phil will be remembered by family and friends for his generosity and thoughtfulness, his ability to fix anything, his love of golf with his friends, the intricate ship models he constructed in bottles, his broad thinking about solutions for the Adirondacks he loved, his bad jokes, his love of his alma mater, his collection of Olympic and Adirondack books and memorabilia, and his love for his wife and family. His favorite saying was, “Isn’t it nice to have the WHOLE family together.”
Phil is survived by his wife Elsie, his children Cynthia of LaJolla, CA (Bill Copeland); David of Ridgefield, CT and Saranac Lake (Holly); and Steve of Poway, CA (Stephanie) as well as grandchildren Dj, Stephen, Alex, and Andrew.