Life Is Apprenticeship for 82-Year-Old's Encore Career


At 78, George Wolf needed a job. "My resume garnered many calls, some quite urgent. But once the in-person interviews made my age apparent, the excuses not to hire me were laughably imaginative," the New Yorker recalls.

After he perused Encore.org and attended an inspiring presentation by Purpose Prize winners at the New York Public Library in February 2009, he discovered his own encore career doing work far different than any he had done before. The former garment industry entrepreneur, who narrowly escaped the Nazis during World War II, now feels valued and appreciated doing marketing and public relations for a Jewish charity.

Wolf grew up in Czechoslovakia, living comfortably in a family that worked in the textile business until they were suddenly exiled by the threat of invading Nazis. "In the following years, my parents and I escaped their expanding reach once again, ending up as a refugee in Switzerland and living on charity while I studied on scholarships," Wolf says. "The rest of my family – my grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins – did not escape, and with one exception did not survive."

He recalls seeing Hitler in person as an 11-year-old in 1939, witnessing defeated French troops flee the German Blitzkrieg of 1940 and watching American air raids on Friedrichshafen, Germany, from the Swiss side across from Lake Constance in 1944. In 1946 he visited the Nuremberg War Crimes trials to watch Goering and the rest of the German leadership in the dock.

His language abilities enabled him to work at the American consulate in Switzerland and enter the U.S. as an immigrant on Christmas 1946 – alone – at age 19. He then worked in the textile and apparel industry until 1950, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Germany to take part in an intelligence effort to recruit members of the Warsaw Pact militaries into the American Army.

Upon his return, Wolf again worked in the garment industry, consulting with top-name designers, both American and French, on knitwear design and production, and he helped develop a hand-knitting industry in Tuscany, Italy. At age 65, he started a new business to produce upscale designer knitwear in the economically disadvantaged South Bronx, a business that he thought would keep him busy and provide income during his retirement.

Although the business was successful at first, imports began to pose a threat. "In an attempt to keep our workers employed, most of whom had been with us for many years, we took on a large Navy crew shirt contract that still required fully domestic provenance. However, we lost money on the contract and, in the end, we reluctantly closed our doors," Wolf says.

That's how he found himself in need of work at age 78. "Finding a responsible job in my old industry became a Sisyphean battle," he says. After suffering constant rejection in his field of expertise, he did some consulting work, but even that ended as clients fell victim to the growing recession.

The turning point came, he says, when he found Encore.org online and attended an exciting and inspiring presentation of Purpose Prize winners at the New York Public Library.

Through community connections, he learned about a small Jewish charity, The Blue Card, that needed help. Started in Germany in 1934, the organization, which assists impoverished survivors of the Holocaust, needed a marketing and PR person to help promote a newly affiliated Visa card that generates contributions to the charity.

"The budget of The Blue Card was minuscule, but so were my needs, and with my interest in helping older adults in need, my background in business and my familiarity with the Holocaust, it was a perfect match," Wolf explains.

Now, at 82, he also is the associate producer of a dramatic theater piece, "Wallenberg," about the Swedish diplomat who went to Budapest in 1944 and helped save 100,000 Jews from death camps, only to disappear into the Soviet gulag. And he's helping a friend at Mercy Ships recruit medical volunteers to crew the ships, as well as doing various kinds of writing.

Wolf says, "I am active, alive, excited, full of energy and ideas, feeling valuable and appreciated, and intend to keep going another 20 years at least. In other words, my whole life was an apprenticeship for what I do now."