Whether or not you knew Harry Louis Wolf, you no doubt have been touched by his legacy.
Whether you’ve listened to the Waterloo German Band over its 73 years under Wolf’s leadership, enjoyed a cold brew in the Harry Wolf Biergarten of Stubborn German Brewing Co. or hurried outside on a cold December evening to greet Santa and his helpers as the Santa Float cruised through your neighborhood, you have experienced Wolf’s generosity.
Wolf died July 17 at the age of 88. For his full obituary, click here.
“Harry had such a big heart. He wants to do so much for people,” said his close friend Debbie Ruggeri.
A lifelong Waterloo resident, Wolf grew up on Market Street, speaking a combination of low German and high German, with a little English mixed in, with his parents. After graduating from Waterloo High School he served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Upon his discharge he attended Edinboro State Teachers College, near Erie, Penn., eventually becoming a German teacher.
Ruggeri described Wolf as someone who took risks, who – once he got an idea in his head – stopped at nothing to make it happen.
He spent six days in Iran in late 1979, just months before the revolution that installed the Ayatollah Khomeini. He traveled throughout the former Soviet Bloc more than once — and saw Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev after ducking behind a display in a Kremlin museum to avoid being escorted out. He met Bob Hope in China and Raquel Welch in Hungary.
Wolf drove 4,000 miles along the Pan-American Highway to the Panama Canal alone.
The Waterloo German Band, which he founded with his brother, Nelson, in 1946, performed around the country and across ocean. They traveled to Germany for performances and were a favorite of former Anheuser-Busch owner Gussie Busch. They played at the White House and for two sitting presidents.
In Wolf’s autobiography “My Life in Stories,” it takes more than 500 pages to touch on the highlights of his 88 years. The stories, lists, photos and anecdotes weave a colorful tapestry of Wolf’s accomplishments and accolades, but Wolf the man was much more than the sum of his stories.
He was in many ways larger than life.
Wolf collected and donated instruments to hopeful musicians across the globe. He spent $18,000 to publish his memoirs so 100 percent of the money from book sales can be donated to Camp Wartburg. He created the Waterloo Santa Float, which cruised Waterloo’s streets for more than 20 years.
“Harry was very religious,” Ruggeri said. “A lot of people don’t realize that about him but he was very close to God. When he did the Santa Float, it was always about letting people know the reason for the season.”
As Wolf recovered from a fall last year, he passed the baton on to the city of Waterloo, which built and organized the Santa Float for the first time last year.
“We were hoping he’d get to see it this year,” Waterloo Mayor Tom Smith said. “It’s going to be hard when we go out this year knowing he’s gone.”
Whether he was playing music or regaling listeners with stories, Wolf was an entertainer at heart.
“Harry loved children,” Smith said. “He loved to see them smile.”
“You can have all the money in the world, but nothing makes you happier than putting a smile on the face of a child,” Wolf said just months ago, when his book was released.
Wolf was also passionate about his German heritage.
“He’s been a really great ambassador of goodwill for Waterloo and for the German culture,” Smith said.
In 2010, Wolf received Das Bundesverdienstkreuz (Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany). The prestigious award is presented to Germans and foreign citizens for significant contributions to enhance the German culture across the world.
Wolf is a member of the Senior Illinoisans Hall of Fame and is on the Waterloo High School Legacy Wall. He received a 2009 Governor’s Hometown Award for the Santa Float, the 2005 Waterloo Chamber of Commerce Community Service Award and a Studs Terkel Community Service Award in 2009 for spreading the German culture across the state with his music.
Wolf is survived by two sons, Russ and Renard, along with his longtime companion Barbara Johnson.
“I’m really going to miss Harry a lot and I sure am happy I got to know him,” Ruggeri said.