Jerald Wolfgang's weekend commendation for his career in hospital fundraising got him thinking about how some of his interest and expertise in charity work began: his early professional career as an advance man for Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, organizing a gala dinner with Frank Sinatra and astronauts and traveling in Latin America.
"You could see the poor. You could see people who needed help. It gives you a different picture when you see it in foreign countries. Then you see it locally," said Wolfgang, 73.
To see people in poor countries with physical problems who seemed desperate for health care made him realize that he had the power to help local people with similar needs. When a friend encouraged him to do volunteer work at Mount St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston in the late 1970s, his efforts gradually multipled with persuasive requests by the hospital's former CEO, the late Sister Maureen Ann Muller.
Wolfgang said he did not expect that he -- a Jewish man -- would be so drawn in by a Catholic nun and that his work would eventually lead to a celebration in his honor Saturday at a Mount St. Mary's Foundation fundraising dinner.
"They reached out so much to help the community that I just became attached to them," he said. "I love the hospital. The hospital is a dominant part of my life."
Wolfgang, a former Niagara County Republican Party chairman, started at the hospital by helping to organize a pancake breakfast, a golf tournament, a gala dinner and later to join the board of directors.
He now teaches a class in meeting planning as an adjunct professor at the School of Hospitality and Tourism at Niagara University, another project that connects to his old job with Rockefeller.
>What is an advance man exactly?
Advance people are people who go in advance of the circus. The person who was there in advance who set up the advertising. He did all the things that were necessary to make the circus a success. The best advance men that came out of the elections were trained by the Kennedys and the Rockefellers.
I was trained by the best as I was broken in. I ran rallies. You learn style, procedures that are able to get things accomplished. In many cases, things are done to fool the press: The size of a room dictates what the media will say. Whether it's a crowd or not. "A disappointing crowd greeted the governor." Not good press. I had to gauge what would be the size of the crowd. If I was having a town meeting and I'm in a school, "Do I want to use an auditorium? Or do I want to use the cafeteria? Do I have a smaller room at a hotel that could be expanded?" If I started out with a big room and it was half empty, a different connotation.
You have to enable yourself to think, "How many people do I believe I can attract?"
>Working for Rockefeller was an adventure? How so?
The opportunity to be with a man of his stature and to learn one of my favorite expressions: He put his pants on the same as any other man. A very intelligent, bright man who wanted to serve the public.
>After astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, Rockefeller asked for a gala dinner and you organized it?
The governor called the staff in. He said, "I want to have a state dinner for these astronauts." I'm laughing about it only because a governor doesn't have state dinners, a president does.
So we just looked at him like there no money in the budget to do that: "Governor, where would we would do this as far as a budget?" And he said, "We'll take it out of Rock Center." Rockefeller Center. 22 Rock Center, where NBC is. That's where the Rockefeller family offices were.
>You went to Rock Center to organize the dinner for 1,500 to 1,800 people held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel?
We got a family list. We got a list from all the associates. We invited every legislator. We met the astronauts, but it's bigger than that. My wife sat at Frank Sinatra's table. Heads of companies from New York State were there. This was a huge, huge thing. People were calling for invitations.
The whole dais was filled with red roses because that's the New York State flower. It was just gorgeous. It was just a great event, and it was typical of working for Rockefeller. Nelson Rockefeller was that type of person. There wasn't anything we couldn't do that needed to be done. We did this dinner in about three weeks, maybe four weeks, tops.
>Your wife wasn't on the guest list at first?
She bugged me. She wanted to come. She went out and bought a dress, and she was ready. We did seating. There was space. I put her at Frank Sinatra's table. I didn't eat there. I worked the dinner.
>How does your work with Rockefeller connect to your local charity projects?
You see true value in helping others. Volunteerism is to be able to understand what really are the problems that are in the community and how do people deal with them.
>What did you see that related to the need to support the hospital while traveling in Latin America in the 1960s and '70s?
Mexico City. Water that's flowing in these rivers. The water that you're drinking and the water that you're going to the bathroom in and the water that you wash your clothes in. Out at the embassy, looking down, seeing people washing their clothes in the river was astounding.
>What was it about Sister Muller that drew you in to hospital work?
Her ability to work with everybody. She was a very caring person. To her it was nothing to go visit the patients in the hospital. Sometimes the CEO You're busy doing all the important things. She had that caring touch to talk to people to encourage their participation as volunteers. It struck me as a very important charge to be involved with the hospital: being part of the community.
Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Bruce Andriatch, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email email@example.com