Remembering Elliot Wolf

While one should not speak ill of the dead (so “they” say) my reaction to hearing the news that my old King David Linksfield high school headmaster Elliot Wolf had passed away did not generate a great outpouring of grief.

I remember his reproachful face peering over us high school kids at assembly, and sneeringly telling those who did not like some or other dictum of his that they could “Go to that other institution down the road”. By that he meant our Johannesburg sister school, King David High School Victory Park, whose headmaster was by some bizarre coincidence his identical twin brother.

This joke was repeated ad nauseam in a sarcastic fashion as he surveyed his domain, perched behind the lectern on stage.

Well anyway that’s how I remember Mr Wolf, who passed away last month aged 83.

Of course other people have different memories of him. Indeed the tributes have come flowing thick and fast for his contribution to my alma mater, where he was headmaster for an eternity, a feat of longevity if nothing else.

“His wisdom, quiet strength, and intellectual prowess, were renowned, but it was genuine care and heartfelt love for his students that earned him his reputation,” read the official statement from the South African Board of Jewish Education.

That genuine care it seemed to me was reserved for a very small percentage of high achievers: prefects, the academically gifted and those who did well on the sporting field.

It was certainly not shared with average students such as myself, who never did brilliantly or badly (Four ‘Bs’ marked my matriculation scorecard, the highlight of my high school sporting career, was making the Under-15 B rugby team). I was a non-entity in the eyes of Mr Wolf.

Not once in five years of high school did he offer a friendly comment or greeting. Never did he say anything vaguely encouraging. I found him an intimidating presence, one which did little to shape my personal development in any positive or meaningful fashion.

Instead, he reinforced the notion that academic and sporting success mattered above all else, regardless of how hard you worked or tried or the strength of your character.

When I left school in 1991 I quickly forgot about Elliot Wolf. Only his passing last month reminded me of how much I disliked him.

Perhaps Mr Wolf inspired many people, but he did not inspire me.