On a windy spring afternoon, Pennsylvania first lady and Franklin & Marshall Trustee Frances Wolf ’96 meets with a handful of students in her alma mater’s New College House. The curious minds want to know: How do national dialogues inform what happens in state politics? Did she have a favorite course at F&M? What was it like to grow up in Tehran? Is there a typical day in the life of a first lady?
The answer to the last question starts at her home in York County, Pa., where she and Gov. Tom Wolf continue to live. Though she may be at the governor’s residence for functions or meetings a few times a week, a typical day—if there is such a thing—begins when she gets into sweatpants and fuzzy slippers in her art studio, and starts painting.
“I’ll go into the studio and putter around,” she says. “There are days when I’ll think that I’m the smartest person there is because I’m doing just brilliant work. Then I’ll come in the next morning, realize it was pretty awful, and scrub it out. There’s a lot of give and take. Sometimes you plan everything, compose it, and then at some point [the piece] just takes you away. It has its own interesting story to tell.”
Much like Wolf herself, who has inhabited and reinvented a wide range of roles throughout her adult life, including student, regional planner, philanthropist, mother, artist, and, since January 2015, first lady. The diversity of her interests and experiences—combined with her penchant for humility and privacy—has inspired some in the media to label her an enigma. What it really seems to mean is that she is worldly, intelligent, and a living embodiment of the liberal arts.
“I don’t know that there is a balance [between being an artist, a philanthropist, and first lady],” she says. “It’s just what I do. All these bits and pieces are what I do, and I hope I do them well.”
Many people might reach the age of 40 and assess a resume filled with world travel, successful work, and extensive community service as signs of a life well lived. But something had been missing from Wolf’s life. As far back as she can remember, she had been drawn to visual art. “I had always painted and drawn,” she says. “I have pieces from when I was 2 and 3. But then I went to college and started working. I did different things. When I turned 40, I decided, ‘Time’s a-wasting.’”
It was Franklin & Marshall, she says, that gave her the second chance she craved. Associate Professor of Art History Linda Aleci, who taught Wolf at F&M, noticed in Wolf a genuine search for knowledge. “She really wanted to learn. I think pursuing this was a recognition of a part of her that she really wanted to develop.”
Wolf enrolled in F&M’s art program as a nontraditional student; the College enabled her to pursue her degree part time so that she could arrange her courses around her daughters’ schooling. In spite of her unusual schedule and the age difference between her and most of her student peers, Wolf always felt welcome on campus.
“Coming back to school was like exercising an old muscle,” she says. “And it was hurting.” But she says these growing pains were eased by the attentiveness of F&M’s professors and the kindness of her fellow students.
What Wolf valued about these relationships, she also reciprocated. “Having two daughters of her own, I think that Frances was very conscious of making space for the young people in class to be able to be themselves and make their own contributions,” says Aleci. And as a professor, Aleci says, “I feel privileged to have taught someone like her.”
The feeling is entirely mutual. “What was given to me here was mine for the taking,” says Wolf. “It was the richest experience.”
That experience served as the foundation for Wolf’s new career as an oil painter. For the last two decades she has exhibited work throughout Pennsylvania, and these days painting is her primary job. Her artwork is at times playful, at times peaceful, and at times serious, even pained. Always, her work feels alive, as if the artist has gripped the viewer’s hand and is pointing, urgently, at the painting’s subject.
“She’s a type of artist who’s an explorer,” say Aleci. “She’s using her art for purposes other than simply to put something out in the marketplace.”
Born in Brooklyn, Wolf lived in America for the first 11 months of her life. Her parents worked in the U.S. Foreign Service, and the family spent time living in Iran, Germany, France, Pakistan and England, where Wolf earned a bachelor’s degree in South Asian History in the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London.
There, she met a man named Tom Wolf. The two dated, got married, and moved to Boston while Tom pursued a doctorate at MIT and Frances worked as a market researcher for Cahners Publishing Company (now Reed Business Information). For Frances, it was the first time she’d lived in America for a significant period of time.
The experience of living abroad, where languages and customs often differed dramatically from those in the U.S., provided her with a set of skills that have proved useful in her new role as first lady, which often requires encounters with unknown people or places. She is fluent in French, speaks some Italian, and can read Spanish and German. “Knowing I could live in other cultures gave me confidence,” she says. “It makes you stronger, in a way.”
Eventually, at Tom’s urging, the couple moved again—this time to his hometown of York, Pa. Tom took up work in his family business (the Wolf Organization) while Frances worked as a regional planner for Buchart Horn, a leading engineering, architecture and planning consulting firm.
Outside of work, Wolf committed herself to a range of philanthropic initiatives on behalf of the local community. She joined the boards of the local library, planning commission, Jewish Community Center, and a halfway house for female offenders. She was a frequent volunteer at her daughters’ public schools, at local arts events, and for various nonprofits.
As first lady, she does not always participate in the daily goings-on in Harrisburg, but she is present for causes that matter to her, from honoring women veterans and vocational high schools to recognizing the work of the PA Breast Cancer Coalition.
“I think a good way of getting started in the world is: Get involved,” she tells the students. “All of us being involved in our way makes a difference, whether we realize it or not.”
Living the Liberal Arts
For the first lady, getting involved means playing a key role on her alma mater’s Board of Trustees. She has been a galvanizing force on the board’s Art Collections Committee, which has worked to formalize the College’s art collection and define its role on campus. She believes the art program serves as a microcosm of F&M as a whole—that both provide high-quality, personalized educations that shape the cultural landscape.
“I think liberal arts institutions are absolutely indispensable,” says Wolf, also earned a master’s in art history at Bryn Mawr College. “As students, we become introduced to bodies of information that teach us how to think, how to reason, how to write, and how to be curious. We may be confronted with information in ways that are uncomfortable, or ideas that are uncomfortable, but I think that’s part of what a real education is. This kind of training is something we should all have.”
In her role as a trustee, Wolf is especially committed to making the F&M education available to as many students as possible. “I’m excited at the prospect of the College attracting first-generation students—both rural and urban—from across the country,” she says. “We’re working hard to make it possible for them to come to the College and not leave with a mountain of debt.”
Much like the liberal arts, Wolf’s strength seems to lie in her multiplicity. Her global perspective, multidisciplinary background, thirst for knowledge, and commitment to the greater good all add up to a sum that is greater than their individual parts. Not coincidentally, they also embody the mission of F&M, the institution she credits with shaping her new direction in life.
In the end, Wolf is simply practicing what she tells the students sitting in New College House before her: She is getting involved. She is doing it in her own way. And, much as her paintings have their own stories to tell, she proves willing to follow stories to their own ends.
“As students, we become introduced to bodies of information that teach us how to think, how to reason, how to write, and how to be curious.”