John M. Wolf, Sr. was a major benefactor of JCC, camps for half a century

John M. Wolf, Sr. was a major benefactor of JCC, camps for half a century

John M. Wolf, Sr.
John M. Wolf, Sr.

John M. Wolf, Sr., a generous Pittsburgh philanthropist who was involved in virtually every red-letter development of the Jewish Community Center and its camp program since the 1960s, died Monday, Dec. 30, in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 93.

“It would be hard to think about a facility development project that John wasn’t involved in,” said Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

Wolf’s last gift to the community was the new aquatics center at Emma Kaufmann Camp near Morgantown, W.Va. Wolf and his wife, Leatrice (Lee), were the lead donors to the pool complex, which opened in 2011.

The couple visited the aquatics center shortly thereafter. Campers spontaneously ran up to meet and thank them. Later, the Wolfs dined in the EKC dining hall.

“If you could see the look in his eyes you would know what that meant to him,” Lee Wolf said, recalling the visit. “You would know how he embraced that.”

At the time, Wolf himself was quoted as saying, “The reaction to my visit at Emma Kaufmann Camp brought back a reminiscence of my first experience at the camp 85 years ago, driving out to Zelienople with a caravan of Kaufmann cars to see the dedication of the opening of the camp.”

Indeed, Wolf belonged to the Kaufmann family — of Kaufmann’s Department Store fame — which gave the camp, as well as the historic Irene Kaufmann Settlement in the Hill District, their names.

A longtime JCC benefactor and former president of the board, Wolf played key roles in developing all aspects of JCC camping programs, which include the JCC’s Henry Kaufmann Family Recreation Park in Monroeville.

He was involved in the purchase of former Camp Lynnwood near Morgantown in 1971, as the new location of Emma Kaufmann Camp. His inspiration led to the creation of the Oliver M. Kaufmann Teen Village at EKC in 1979.

Born July 25, 1920, in St. Louis, Wolf, whose mother, Martha, was the sister of Edgar Kaufmann, grew up watching his father, I.D. Wolf, preside over the Irene Kaufmann Settlement while heading Kaufmann’s Department store.

The younger Wolf started his volunteer work early, helping during the summers at the IKS camp in the Hill District and later, working as a camp counselor at its facility on lower Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill.

After graduating from Williams College and Harvard Business School, Wolf worked as a project manager at Dravo Corp. and a merchandise manager at Kaufmann’s before striking out on his own, founding NAPCO Building Products where he was CEO and chairman of the board.

But volunteering was always a second career. His uncle, Oliver Kaufmann, encouraged him, while still a young businessman, to focus his volunteer efforts on the IKS.

“Uncle Oliver talked about taking that responsibility,” he told JCC in an interview. “I dropped other charitable interests and focused on the JCC. It’s been my prime interest.”

Wolf became one of three individuals (Eugene Cohen and Max Pincus were the others) who led the process of merging the IKS, the Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association and Emma Kaufmann Camp (EKC) in 1960. He helped manage the integration of their boards and operations. He also chaired the Emma Kaufmann Camp Committee for 10 years.

According to Schreiber, Wolf was instrumental in developing the JCC’s Henry Kaufmann Family Recreation Park in Monroeville, which was dedicated in 1969 and is home to James & Rachel Levinson Day Camp.

Wolf came by his love of camping naturally, wife Lee said.

“He adored children,” she said. “He couldn’t go into a restaurant where he wouldn’t go over and pat a child’s head or embrace them. He adored them.”

From 1967 to 1970, he served as board president of the merged entity — then known as the Y-IKC.  In 1974, the Y-IKC was renamed as the Jewish Community Center.

Wolf helped secure the lead gift that led to the development of the Henry Kaufmann Building of the JCC South Hills in 1999.

In recent years, he played a leading role in the JCC’s Beyond the Buildings endowment campaign, which began in 2004 and enabled the JCC to secure funds to retire long-term debt and begin a lower floor renovation of the Squirrel Hill facility. In recognition of his leadership, the lower entrance of the facility was renamed as the Leatrice and John M. Wolf Centerfit.

“He felt very strongly that the Jewish Community Center movement was an all-inclusive movement,” Lee said. “It encompassed people from all aspects and elements of Jewish life and brought them together as a community — the concept of community was very important to him.”

In 2011, the JCC honored Wolf for his lifetime dedication and philanthropy on behalf of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh at its Big Night special event.

Nationally, Wolf won the 1996 Frank L. Weil award, which recognizes distinguished contributions of JCC Association’s work in the Jewish Community Center field. Wolf and wife Lee together won the JCC Association Community Builders Award in 2001 for their lifetime commitment to Jewish concerns and community building.

Wolf also was active in other organizations, serving as vice president of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the United Jewish Appeal of Pittsburgh.

His first wife, Gene (Gottlieb) Wolf, preceded him in death.

“For me, it was a rare privilege — an honor — to be married to a man of his integrity, his distinction, his philanthropy, his love of people  — all of the above,” Lee said. “He was an extraordinary man.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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