At the age of 83, Morris Wolff, Gamma ’58 (Amherst) still rides his bicycle eight to ten miles a day. Now living in central Florida, Wolff was born and raised in Philadelphia. He considers himself to be a very lucky man as he reflects on his life experiences and enjoys God’s humor and the craziness that life brings about, especially when it comes to the people he has had the opportunity to meet and work alongside with.
In more than eight decades of life, Morris Wolff has worn many hats. He has been a husband, an author, a civil rights lawyer, a teacher, an activist, and an advocate against injustice. He worked many years as a respected and well-known human rights lawyer and has been sought out by many to work in emancipation efforts for various groups of people, often working pro bono.
“Wherever I saw injustice, I felt called to help and to heal,” said Wolff as he explained how he was inspired to write his first book, ‘Whatever Happened to Raoul Wallenberg?,’ which tells the story about his efforts alongside the Wallenberg family of Sweden to rescue Raoul after his wrongful imprisonment by the Soviet Union following World War II. Wolff was contacted by Wallenberg’s family after Wallenberg had already been in a Soviet prison for 39 years. Wallenberg had become the forgotten hero of the Holocaust and Wolff went to work immediately to attempt to rescue him, suing the Soviet Union to secure the Swedish diplomat’s release. Wolff won a $39 million verdict against the Soviet Union and later joined forces with Israel’s officials and a former US ambassador to rescue Wallenberg. Unfortunately, Wallenberg was never released.
Wolff’s passion for righting wrongs and interjecting when he encountered injustice began from a young age. That pillar of confronting injustice was an important part of his upbringing, and eventually led him to join two of his three brothers who were also involved in Psi Upsilon Fraternity at Amherst College.
One of Wolff’s favorite and lasting memories at Amherst is when his fraternity brother, John Boettiger Gamma ’60 (Amherst), requested the fraternity hold a tea party so that he could bring his grandma as a guest. Boettiger wanted to show his grandmother where he lived and what he was doing in college. His grandmother was none other than former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.
Wolff played an important role in this day that would leave an impression on him forever, as he picked her up from the airport and transported her to the Psi Upsilon house. As Wolff would find out quickly, this one-on-one time he spent casually with Roosevelt would change his career trajectory forever, as well as fuel Wolff’s fascination with meeting important people, which continued to play a part in his life experiences in meeting Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Frost, John and Jackie Kennedy, and many more figure-heads.
Wolff describes Eleanor Roosevelt as such a kind and gentle woman, who genuinely cared enough to sit down and give guidance to young men such as himself. When Wolff first met Roosevelt, he had been determined to go to Harvard Law School, but in the short few hours he spent with Eleanor Roosevelt in transit, she encouraged Wolff to attend Yale instead, a decision which impacted Wolff’s life greatly.
Roosevelt sustained her friendship with Morris Wolff, later connecting him in September of 1958 with Fred Rodell, a progressive liberal democrat and law professor at Yale. Wolff was drawn to Rodell’s unorthodox and maverick nature, both characteristics Wolff felt as though he too embodied. He quickly became Rodell’s research assistant and gained Rodell’s highest praise with his passionate and well-researched work. “This is the finest piece of student research and writing that I have seen in my 36 years of teaching law,” wrote Rodell on Morris’ research paper that would later be published in the Winter 1963 New Jersey Bar Journal.
“Certain human beings deeply influenced me along the way,” recalled Wolff while speaking of his time studying under Rodell.
After graduating from Yale Law School, Morris’ career propelled him into fulfilling his passions as he was specifically chosen in 1963 to work for Robert “Bobby” Kennedy in Washington D.C., making $5,200 as his annual salary. Working for Kennedy, Morris became a key element in not only drafting parts of the Civil Rights Acts, but also a bargaining chip in securing the votes to pass it.
“All of that started with Psi Upsilon and the visit from Eleanor Roosevelt,” Wolff said.
One of Wolff’s greatest motivators continues to be his discomfort and disdain for the misuse of power and injustices, particularly within government. He is vocal about his dislike for bullies, whether it be kids in the schoolyard, hazing in a fraternity, or those who are in political power. Wolff is still consistently outspoken in these scenarios, and always has been. He, only half joking, credits this to his Jewish heritage and his Quaker educational background.
“They taught me to speak up when things were wrong and unacceptable.”
Wolff explains that Psi Upsilon’s pillar, Service to Society, rings most true to him and his life accomplishments. From his upbringing, to his education, to his profession, he feels as though his life has truly been devoted in his service to society. After working in the thick of the Civil Rights movement and legislation, Wolff continued to embody service to society. After spending some time in the justice system, Wolff saw a need from the younger population to be equally and fairly represented. He began the TAKE A BROTHER program of Philadelphia which was committed to saving hundreds of young people from injustice within the justice system. The genius of the program involved matching little boys in trouble with the law to outstanding high school boys in the neighborhood in a mentorship fashion. Wolff partnered with his wife Patricia, going into the public high schools to find these outstanding boys to lead these wayward boys away from the life of crime. The program awarded the high school boys with college scholarships. Wolff explains that in Philadelphia at this time, many young kids were pushed through the justice system without much of a chance to learn, grow, and become future contributing members to society. The innovative program received a Points of Light award from President George H. W. Bush.
“Psi U focuses on the human heart as a place of knowledge and positive energy,” says Wolff, “This has motivated me to intervene and teach to the heart of these youth, where others had failed.”
Sixty years after his time as an undergrad member in Psi Upsilon, Wolff still recognizes the impact those four years of membership and brotherhood had on him. He still maintains friendships with fellow brothers Freddie Greenman, Gamma ’58 (Amherst) and John Lagomarcino, Gamma ’58 (Amherst) after all this time. As he sang over the phone “O Dear Old Shrine,” one of many songs Psi Upsilon members hold sacred, Wolff made it clear and apparent that his love for the organization and friendships have not faded over the years. To Wolff, Psi Upsilon’s motto, “Unto us has befallen a mighty friendship,” is the brotherly oath that each brother belongs to each other, from the heart.
“I’ve been very, very lucky,” Wolff concludes. “I am looking forward to as many more years of health and happiness as possible.”
We’re proud to announce Morris as a recipient of the David A.B. Brown, ΕΦ ’66, Distinguished Alumnus Award. The Distinguished Alumnus Award is the highest award which may be bestowed upon an alumnus of Psi Upsilon for bringing honor to the Fraternity by exemplifying the true spirit and meaning of brotherhood and moral leadership in all that they do and say, for dedicated and unselfish service in pursuit of the advancement of the Fraternity, and for demonstrating a commitment to serve the educational environment, their community, and their country. We would like to congratulate Brother Wolff on this award and thank him for all his hard work and reflection on Psi Upsilon. We are honored to have him as a member of our fraternity.