Stanford Report, Mar. 8, 2004
Howard Wolf, face of Alumni Association, steps into spotlight
BY RAY DELGADO
Although he publicly extols the virtues of Stanford as part of his job, Alumni Association President Howard Wolf confessed that he tried to avoid speaking for the "What Matters to Me and Why" series as long as he could and found it difficult to identify a particular set of ideals he lives by that he wanted to share with the public.
Wolf has mastered the task of public speaking and has managed to make countless graduates feel connected to the university in ways many of them never previously experienced. But when it comes to turning the spotlight on himself, the unflappable 45-year-old admitted to having nerves.
"This is very difficult, to talk about what matters to you," Wolf said. "I can talk about Stanford and do talk about Stanford all the time, and I love to do that. It's so easy to talk about something else or someone else, but this is very difficult because you're asked to distill in a short talk what matters to you."
Ultimately, Wolf's 14-year-old daughter helped him focus his talk by reminding him that what mattered most to him were the values he had been trying to instill in his two children from a young age: education, intelligence, wisdom, humor, interpersonal interactions and the importance of family.
A 1980 graduate of Stanford, Wolf was named president of the Alumni Association in 2001 after 20 active years as a university volunteer and after serving as co-chair of his 20-year class reunion. He founded FastMark, a publishing and licensing firm, in 1994 and served as senior vice president and managing director for Cornish & Carey Realty Advisors prior to that. He was also a senior vice president and partner at William Wilson & Associates, a commercial real estate development and management firm.
As it happens, Wolf is a dog person who sees the world as made up of people who like dogs and those who will come to like dogs after time. The dog people are the extroverts who feed off the energy from interactions with others and give it right back; then there are those who get their energy from other solitary endeavors.
Being someone who enjoys his alone time, Wolf said it was surprising for him to realize how much he thrived on interpersonal interactions. But it was clear to those who listened to him that being an extrovert has taken Wolf from a humble upbringing and set him on a successful and enriching path.
From an early age, Wolf and his older brother were encouraged to pursue higher education. Wolf was born in New Jersey to first-generation parents whose Jewish parents had fled the Ukraine and Hungary in the early 1900s as a result of religious persecution. Neither his parents nor his 18 aunts and uncles ever graduated from college.
"Although [my parents] were very bright people, going to college just wasn't something they thought about," Wolf said. "But they decided very quickly after my brother and I were born that the only way for the Wolf family to get to another level was through education."
Wolf's educational pursuits took him to Stanford in 1976, where he experienced what he called "the most defining moment" of his life. He received a phone call in May 1977 that informed him his father had passed away suddenly from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 54. He received a similar call nine years later that his mother had died in a car accident at the age of 63. These two tragedies taught him to appreciate his time and family.
"I have this time horizon that is fairly truncated," Wolf said. "It's not very long and if life is so short, it ought to be fun along the way."
Wolf's time at Stanford also left an indelible mark on him, he said. He graduated with a degree in psychology but said he learned far more from the 2 a.m. hallway discussions with other students than he learned in the classroom. "I came here and there was a whole world that I knew nothing about," Wolf said. "I was so amazed by not only the richness that Stanford had to offer but also the richness the students I met in my dorm had to offer."
Wolf's experiences at Stanford and Harvard, where he graduated with an MBA, also taught him the importance of having emotional intelligence on top of book smarts. He described emotional intelligence as having self-awareness and empathy for others, the ability to motivate oneself and others and the ability to handle relationships.
Wolf also values wisdom, a word that he says is used too often to describe merely intelligent people. He confessed that he hoped to be considered wise by at least one person during his lifetime.
"Wisdom, to me, is more than intelligence," Wolf said. "It's the ability to take intelligence, to marry it with your knowledge and experience and common sense and insight and bring that to action. Wisdom is knowing what to do next."
A question-and-answer session at the end of his speech helped shed light on Wolf's interests. He reads novels to escape; he believes that he was a CIA operative in a past life; he wants to find more balance between his work and home life; he expressed strong admiration for and, ultimately, disappointment with former President Bill Clinton; and he said his allegiances are with Stanford, not Harvard, because of how he was treated.
"The beauty of Stanford, for me, was that you come here as an undergraduate and you're very much treated as an adult," Wolf said. "Harvard was diametrically different. They treated you like you were a child from the moment you got in there."
When asked about what other organizations he participates in, Wolf said that he and his wife were big supporters of their children's schools and public education in general. Most of their friends in Palo Alto send their children to private school, he said, but he felt it was important to support the local education system.
"As a populace, we have to focus on training our young better," Wolf said. He used the example of Silicon Valley companies who outsource to India because the labor pool there is better trained in science.
Ultimately, Wolf is in many ways the chief university salesman, and he demonstrated those skills on the fly with a senior who asked him at the talk for help in addressing her concerns and fears about what she would do once she left the safety net of Stanford.
"We're going to do a really good job of keeping you connected for the next 75 years and keep those memories replaying in your head," Wolf said. "There's reason to be sad. You're not going to be able to replicate this again. But you can replay it again."