Nancy Wolf -- Our 2016 Class of 1962 President's Public Service Award Winner
For over four decades the Class of 1962 has been honored to bestow the Rutgers College Class of 1962 Presidential Award upon a student, staff or faculty member from the New Brunswick Campus for outstanding effort in the public sector outside of their University roles providing lasting and significant service to their community. Each spring our Class Officers are happy to participate in the presentation where the University’s President or his representative bestows this award along with a cash honorarium to an individual and in on case a group who has met the criteria for the award. (You can see past awardees on our News page.)
The Class has relinquished the responsibility for selection for the award to officials within the University’s administration, and we have never been disappointed with their choice.
To quote the nomination form:
(The award) “honors members of the faculty, student body or staff in recognition of distinguished and non-compensated service to government bodies, professional or scholarly organizations, and/or the general public, such as voluntary community leadership, personal acts of heroism, etc. The supporting evidence for candidates who represent specific academic disciplines should typically convey a sense of the extent to which the candidate’s service has led to policy changes and/or to innovations in the operations of public or professional bodies. For others, the evidence should portray distinguished service as a private citizen unrelated to University responsibilities. Collaborative efforts can be considered. Nominees should exhibit sustained and outstanding service outside the range of their university responsibilities.”
Each year, too, Administration shares with us the dossier of submitted support statements from colleagues and other affected members of the University and community advocating for the final recipient.
For nearly a decade I, as a Class Officer along with others in that role, have been privileged to read these recommendations and to participate in the presentation ceremony. To say I’ve been “impressed” with the people who have won the award is to diminish the respect and appreciation I have felt toward them. It has been an honor for all of us and for the Class to be the entity that brings focus on these altruistic efforts.
I had no reason to think 2016 would be any different until I read an email from Dick Anderson, our Treasurer and key liaison on the award to the University, in which he stated that in the four decades of presenting the award he had never seen someone so qualified and whose public service was so in keeping with our criteria for the award as was this year’s selection, Dr. Nancy Wolff.
Most years the documentation for the selection is a file about a dozen pages in length. This year the case for Dr. Wolfe encompassed 97 pages! And more impressively, the support included heartfelt comments from outside the usual but important University colleagues who testified on their fellow Rutgers professor’s behalf.
The communities to which Dr. Wolf contributes her time and effort are very special places: prisons in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Among them is Graterford, Pennsylvania’s largest maximum-security prison. The Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John T. Wetzel in his letter of support for Dr. Wolff opened with the comment:
“It is my honor to support Dr. Nancy Wolff’s nomination for this year’s The Rutgers College Class of 1962 Public Service Award for her efforts and service to our community, reaching far above and beyond her duties to the University.” In that letter Secretary Wetzel described Graterford as “a place most people don’t care to think about, let alone dedicate their time, compassion and considerable talents.”
Secretary Wetzel’s were not the only significant commendation attached to the nomination. The Superintendent of Graterford, Cynthia Link, wrote as well. I urge you to read her letter which demonstrates not only the skepticism she first felt when Dr. Wolfe introduced her programs but her total appreciation of the results they achieved. Download her letter here.
Her letter isn’t unique. But by far the most impressive letters were the dozen written by individuals whose names were followed by numbers – prisoners at the institutions Dr. Wolfe serves and people whose lives have been changed by her.
One which grabbed my attention and gave perhaps the best overview of what Dr. Wolff has accomplished included the paragraph:
“It took a person with an open heart to care enough to make a difference in my life. I’m a convicted murderer with a heart that has turned so cold over the last ten years of my prison sentence. Dr. Wolff has spent the time with me to help me cultivate the tools to stop my own suffering. Dr. Wolff has helped me become the man I always wanted to be.”
All the others told similar stories and praised Dr. Wolff.
Her in-prison activities and programs are broad:
Developing and teaching courses such as Community 101 - a 14week course that meets for 90-minutes, twice a week, and prepares people living in prison for life in the community;
Developing content and leading groups on mindfulness and trauma healing;
Leading multiple weekly book discussion groups;
Training incarcerated people in yoga, meditation and aerobics;
Editing a monthly newsletter that focuses on empowerment and reentry readiness;
Helping to create, sponsoring, and guiding peer-run Community Centers, which provide management and practical work experience for the residents who manage the centers
Attending and speaking at functions organized by peer-run groups such as the Veteran's Group, Fathers and Children Together, and Lifer's Group;
Individually mentoring hundreds of women and men.
She does all this while still maintaining and excelling in an outstanding career as a researcher and educator at Rutgers.
One advocate mentioned that Dr. Wolff accomplished all her work while contributing thousands of her own dollars to fund the programs. I remembered that fact when prior to the bestowing of the award and while seated in the audience she told me that she was planning on taking the honorarium and heading directly to Home Depot to buy plants for her various in-prison gardens. I don’t think she knew the amount we have traditionally bestowed ($2500), and I know she didn’t know we had decided to double the amount based on her extraordinary demonstration of the criteria we have used and sought out for four decades.
The ceremony went as it usually does with a few of us class members smiling in the background and later posing with the recipient. I got to say a few words and pointed out that in our extreme satisfaction with this year’s choice we had decided to double the honorarium. The photo was the same as in many years past with a new face for the recipient and the clearly aging Class members surrounding her.
A few days later I got an email from Dr. Wolff with what I expected to be a “thank you” and perhaps a description of the plants she had purchased. But I wasn’t prepared for what she told me. I’ll let you read it:
“I am writing to thank you for honoring my public service work with incarcerated people. This award highlights the activities that give me purpose and meaning.
“It is important that I build on the legacy of the Class of '62 by inspiring more public service. For this reason, I requested and was approved to begin a Public Service Award for residents at the State Correctional Facility: Graterford, which more than any facility provides opportunities for residents to "do good" while incarcerated. The men there created and maintain programs on cancer awareness, hospice, parenting, victim's awareness and so many others. I will use the stipend I received to fund this initiative, which will include:
1. an annual recipient of the Public Service Award, who will receive $100 donation in his name to a non-profit cause of his choosing;
2. an annual banquet to honor resident volunteers;
3. a "public service" mural (guided by the preferences of the person awarded the Public Service Award) to be painted by the Mural Arts Program and displayed in the prison to brighten the environment (I will make a $100 donation to the Mural Arts Program); and
4. a plaque with the names of the awardees by year (made by the carpentry program) displayed in the visit area.
I am hoping to have the award named after Bryan Stephenson (author of Just Mercy) who epitomizes social justice public service.
I thank you for making this possible by your generous support of public service.
I will invite you to attend the first ceremony where I will honor the generosity and thoughtfulness of the Class of '62.
Again, thank you for recognizing my public service and public service more broadly.”
I think there is no better representation of what we have hoped to accomplish with our over 40 years of recognizing great public service. This award and our Public Service Scholarships firmly position our class as special each year. You can be proud and take credit for this achievement.