Northland man's career based on caring comes to an endBen Wolfe retired Wednesday after founding and serving as program manager of Essentia Health St. Mary’s Grief Support Services for the past 28 years. Over that time he counseled and provided support to thousands of people.
Ben Wolfe provided grief counseling to Mary and Larry Antonich and their daughter, Karen, after the murder of their 17-year-old son and brother, Paul, in Duluth 16 years ago.
When Wolfe travels to his cabin near Isabella on Saturday, he’ll stop by the Antoniches’ rural Two Harbors home to say hello and drop off some of his homemade cracked wheat and rye bread.
That bread could be considered symbolic of a different kind of sustenance that Wolfe has provided by caring for grieving people like the Antoniches for the past 28 years. But that caring professional career has come to an end.
The 65-year-old, soft-speaking Gentle Ben retired Wednesday after founding and serving as program manager of Essentia Health St. Mary’s Grief Support Services for the past 28 years. Over that time he counseled and provided support to thousands of people who were hit hard by miscarriages, still births, sudden infant death syndrome, homicides and violent death traumas. He also counseled those facing impending death due to diseases such as cancer and AIDS.
Mary Antonich was asked how she would describe Wolfe.
“Caring,” she said. “You have to care before you can do all the things that he does. If he didn’t care, I don’t think any of this would come about. … He made himself available to us at very tough times. He put a value on how we were feeling and made us feel comfortable that it was OK to have these different types of feelings. He was a great help when we first had to deal with the murder of our son, Paul, and how to deal with our daughter, court, work, what do we do on birthdays, holidays and other special occasions.”
Wolfe has been a nationally recognized leader in his field. The Association for Death Education and Counseling named him the International Death Educator of the Year last year. Among other awards Wolfe has received are the first U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone Legacy Award presented by Minnesota School counselors; the Minnesota School Social Workers Association’s “Friend of School Social Workers Award” for his work with schools throughout the state in crisis
intervention; and the “Community Service Award,” presented by the International Women Teachers’ Association.
Wolfe’s voice broke, his eyes teared up and he had to grab tissues when he was asked the most accurate way to portray his essence.
“I think clearly — I’m getting emotional — it’s been an amazing opportunity that folks have provided me to be able to walk with them; I think that’s the key thing,” he said. “Without a doubt, I know that I would not be who I am today if it wasn’t for these thousands of people that I’ve been able to interact with over these years and to the tens of thousands that I’ve been able to teach. I’ve had thousands of presentations around the world and I jokingly say that I’m an ‘infectious agent’ because if I can teach 100 people who in turn have contact with more and more victims, that ripple effect goes out.”
Wolfe couldn’t single out any cases he has counseled as being more heart-wrenching than others. There are countless cases that fit that category, he said.
In 1993, Sue Miller’s daughter, Nicole Marie, died shortly after birth. Miller, of Hermantown, said there’s no guide map to grief. She wanted the world to stop when everyone else was going on with their normal lives. She said Wolfe provided valuable counseling.
“He told me that everyone grieves differently and that there is no right or wrong way to grieve,” Miller said. “He’s caring and kind and I think he does a good job of just listening; I think that’s an art in itself. He’s soft-spoken and I think people who are grieving really appreciate that, too.”
Miller said she and Wolfe have become friends. Every year near the anniversary of her daughter’s Nov. 24, 1993, birthday she and Wolfe get together for coffee and talk about her journey of grief and how it changes from year to year.
Miller supports the grief support program at Essentia St. Mary’s with an annual gift in memory of her daughter.
Rev. John Gibbs, director of Chaplaincy Services for Essentia Health St. Mary’s, supervised Wolfe.
“Ben took what was a very modest grief-support program to a national level in terms of being a model for hospital-based grief services,” Gibbs said. “He really built something here in Duluth that is known across the country for hospital-based services. I find it difficult to put into words how many people he has touched. He really has touched literally thousands of people in his 28 years here.”
Chico Anderson, a retired religious studies teacher and school chaplain at Marshall School, said Wolfe always provided a calming presence when he responded to crisis situations at his school.
“His voice was calming, his demeanor was calming, he always defused the sense of anxiety that was there,” Anderson said. “He really knew how to ratchet it down. He was very approachable and a tremendous listener. He listened to all of the voices in the room and really came up with a game plan. … From my point of view, Duluth will be a far poorer place without his presence in the professional community of those who deal with grief and suffering. He’s just been a treasure for the Duluth community.”
Wolfe said he plans to do some training and consulting around the United States and spend more time in the woods with his wife, Barry, who retired a couple of years ago after a 36-year teaching career. The couple met in 1972 while hitchhiking in Australia.
“I’m going to miss people and the opportunity that I’ve had to interact with them during some of the most significant times in their lives,” Wolfe said. “It’s been very meaningful to me to have had that opportunity.”