Wolf, Hazel (1898-2000)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 9/25/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8794
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Hazel Wolf was an environmental and social activist whose causes ranged from the rights of workers, women, and minorities to the protection of wilderness, wetlands, and wildlife. She was still a young girl, growing up in Canada, when she ventured into political action for the first time, challenging the elementary school principal who told her girls couldn’t play basketball. She ended up organizing a girls' basketball program at her school and, later, a citywide women’s basketball league. She became involved in labor issues after moving to Seattle in 1923, a single mother, struggling to support herself and her young child with a series of low-paying jobs. She joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, drifted away from it in the 1940s, and then fought off a 14-year effort by the federal government to deport her as a threat to national security. She eventually became one of the most venerated figures in the Northwest environmental community. A film festival, a wetlands preserve, a bird sanctuary, a high school, and a Seattle Audubon Society endowment all carry her name, in tribute to a woman who proudly described herself as a lifelong "rabble rouser."

Living in Three Centuries

Wolf once said that she was "older than electricity," which was not, strictly speaking, true. The Edison Electric Illuminating Company began generating electricity in New York City more than a decade and a half before she was born. However, electricity had not yet come to her hometown and few other cities on the West Coast were electrified. Automobiles and "moving pictures" were still novelties. The Wright Brothers were still five years away from making their first successful flight in an airplane. Radio had not yet been invented. Television, cell phones, and the internet were far in the future.

Born two years before the end of the nineteenth century, Wolf lived long enough to see the beginning of the twenty-first. She traveled widely, rubbed shoulders with celebrities, became one herself. She learned how to use a computer and laser printer in order to keep up with the demand for her speeches and articles. She even ended up with her own website (www.members.tripod.com/HazelWolf).

Diminutive and soft-spoken, she was known almost as much for her wit and good humor as for her unflagging activism. In a society that values youth, she managed to age "not just gracefully, but vigorously, triumphantly, and perhaps most important, happily," as one admirer put it (The Seattle Times, 1990). She wasn’t bothered by conflict. She remained friends with many people who disagreed with her about a particular issue or tactic. "You say the most offensive things in an inoffensive way," a timber industry official once told her (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1998). She won some battles, lost others, and was always focused on the next cause.

She liked to say that her activism was rooted in self-interest. She wanted to play basketball, so she took a stand in support of women’s rights. She spent time on welfare during the Depression, and thought Communism would improve living conditions for everyone. She was threatened with deportation during the McCarthy era because of her involvement with the Communist Party, and began working to protect the civil rights of all immigrants. She became involved with the environmental movement because she wanted clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, woods to walk in, and birds to watch. "All the way through I am fighting for myself, and for everyone," she told historian Susan Starbuck (272).

"Born Fighting the Establishment"

Hazel Anna Cummings Anderson was born on March 10, 1898, in a hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, to an American mother and a father who had emigrated to Canada from Scotland. Her father, George William Cummings Anderson, was a sergeant in the Canadian merchant marine. He met and married her mother, Nellie Frayne, a native of Indiana, while stationed in Tacoma. The young couple moved from Tacoma to Victoria just two weeks before her birth. "I was born fighting the establishment," Wolf often said. "I was told I tried to bite the doctor when he smacked my behind to start my breathing" (Starbuck, 4).

Wolf and her two younger siblings -- a brother, named after their father but called "Sonny," born in 1901, and a sister, Dorothy, born in 1903 -- grew up in poverty in a tough neighborhood in Victoria. Her father was disabled in an accident at sea when she was 5 years old; he died when she was ten. Her mother supported the family by working in a factory making overalls and later in a variety of domestic service jobs. "In those days there was no insurance for injured workers, no widow’s pensions, no nothing," Wolf recalled. "They just threw you ashore and that was the end of it" (Starbuck, 7).

Both her parents were socialists, and helped instill in Wolf a sense of class consciousness. Her mother was a member of the left-leaning Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) labor union. Wolf described her as a person who "had little education but lots of ideas" (Terkel, 136). Her father, confined to a wheelchair and never again able to work after his injury, often railed against capitalism, organized religion, and the middle class. Wolf said she was not "particularly fond" of him, but she still absorbed his distrust of conventional institutions.

Despite the poverty, Wolf characterized her childhood as reasonably happy and secure. She was athletic, a champion swimmer, and a natural leader. A self-described tomboy, she preferred the company of boys to girls and was more interested in sports than in traditionally feminine activities. She once asked a cousin if she was pretty. The cousin said she looked intelligent, instead. As Wolf told the story, "From then on, I never wanted to look pretty. I always wanted to look intelligent" (Terkel, 139).

When her mother could afford it, she sent Wolf and her siblings to Catholic schools; when she couldn’t, they attended public schools. To stretch the family budget, her mother sometimes rented out rooms to prostitutes. Wolf got to know and to like them. She was as comfortable with the nuns who were her occasional teachers as with the prostitutes who sometimes shared her home. She moved easily between the two worlds, "just like shifting on the typewriter, uppercase and lowercase," developing social skills that would last her lifetime (Starbuck, 24, 37).

Wolf had aunts, uncles, and cousins in Tacoma and visited them regularly, sometimes briefly attending school there. It was during one of those forays that she adopted what would become her family nickname: "Leo." She used to say she had never liked the fact that she had been named after a nut.

Working Nine to Five

Wolf graduated from the eighth grade in 1913 and almost immediately entered the working world. The family’s economic circumstances made it impossible for her to continue her education into high school. After completing a six-month secretarial course, she went to work for a law firm, at a salary of $25 a month. She paid $15 to her mother for room and board, put down $5 as monthly installments on a new bicycle, and spent the rest on candy. "I was 16 and quite childlike," she said (Starbuck, 40).

She was not yet 20 when she married Ted Dalziel, the first of her two husbands, in February 1918. Her only child, Nydia Audrey Dalziel, was born on December 1 that year. When her daughter was about a year and a half old, Wolf left her husband and moved back into her mother’s house. "Let’s skip over this marriage business," she told Susan Starbuck in one of a series of oral interviews. "It is a sensitive area of my life, and I’m not going to go into it too much except to say that I felt trapped. Definitely trapped" (Starbuck, 59).

Wolf had a succession of mostly short-term secretarial jobs throughout the 1920s. She shuttled back and forth between Victoria and Seattle before settling permanently in Seattle in 1923. She moved into a boarding house for single women run by the Sisters of Providence, convincing the nuns to let her live there with her daughter, then 4 years old. The two lived in the boarding house, off and on, for the next eight years. The arrangement was a blessing for Wolf, freeing her from the need to shop for groceries, cook, and clean -- chores she had long disdained as "women’s work" -- and the nuns sometimes looked after Nydia.

She married her second husband, Herbert D. Wolf, in Portland, Oregon, in December 1928. She had her name legally changed back to Anderson, her maiden name, after her divorce from Wolf a few years later, but continued using his last name anyway, for the rest of her life.

Work became harder to find after the onset of the Depression in the 1930s, and Wolf’s financial situation became even more precarious. She sent Nydia off to live with relatives. In 1933, she went on "relief." The experience deepened her sympathies for leftist causes, particularly those aimed at improving conditions for the unemployed. She completed the requirements for a high school diploma at Broadway High and began taking classes at the University of Washington. She intended to become a social worker.

Wolf met a Communist Party organizer while waiting in line for her welfare check one day in 1934. She went to a meeting with him and joined the party that night. She would say later that she felt she was doing "real social work" while associated with the Communist Party and a related group, the Workers’ Alliance. "We Communists left a heritage for future radical movements and I don’t regret a moment of it," she said (Starbuck, 107).

"Held On Red Charges"

Wolf remained involved with the Communist Party for more than a dozen years but had drifted away by 1947, when she made her third attempt to become an American citizen. She first applied for citizenship in 1929 but missed the naturalization hearing because of injuries suffered in a car accident. Her second application, in 1939, was denied on the grounds that she had failed to establish "good moral character," because she was living with a man she wasn’t married to. She retained her status as a legal resident alien after both applications.

Wolf’s third application coincided with the rise of McCarthyism -- the surge of anti-Communist sentiment that began shortly after the end of World War II. Her case seemed doomed from the outset. Two former business associates testified that she had expressed admiration for the Soviet Union. A review she had written for a leftist newspaper, praising a book about the Soviet defeat of Hitler’s 6th Army at Stalingrad, was introduced as further evidence against her. Her cause wasn’t helped by the fact that she refused to swear an oath on the Bible, telling the judge she was an atheist. The judge denied the application. Two years later, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched deportation proceedings.

Wolf was working at that time as a legal secretary for John Caughlan (1909-1999), a Seattle lawyer who had long been associated with various liberal causes. She was at her desk in Caughlan’s office in the Smith Tower on the morning of May 31, 1949, when she was arrested by two federal agents and "thrown in the slammer," as she put it. She told fellow inmates she had been accused of trying to overthrow the government. "I thought they'd laugh," she recalled, "but they just said, ‘Yeah? Well, the damned government ought to be overthrown" (The Seattle Times, 1998). She was released on $500 bail after about four hours in detention. "Canadian Woman, Secretary Here, Held on Red Charges," read the headline in the Post-Intelligencer the next day.

American authorities tried first to arrange her exile to Canada, the country of her birth. Canada refused to accept her on the mistaken grounds that she had forfeited her Canadian citizenship when she married an American citizen. The INS then tried to deport her to Great Britain because her father was a native of Scotland. She was 62 years old and had never been to England. Britain refused her because she had an "arrested case'' of tuberculosis. (Wolf contracted tuberculosis in 1946. She spent nine months in treatment at Firland Sanatorium in Seattle, but chafed at the strict rules there and left without being formally discharged.)

On at least three occasions Wolf was within hours of being taken into custody and escorted out of the country. But she also had a number of influential friends in high places. At one point Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas sent a note to one of Wolf’s supporters, saying: "Tell Mrs. W. not to worry." It was signed, simply, "Bill." The case reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in June 1960. The court granted a stay of deportation and sent the matter back to the District Court to consider constitutional issues raised by her lawyers.

Eventually, Wolf gained sympathizers within the INS itself. It was a suggestion from the agency that finally led to the dismissal of the charges against her, in December 1963. "In a sense it was a battle of attrition,'' John Caughlan, Wolf’s lawyer as well as her employer, recalled in a 1990 interview. Wolf herself denied any bitterness over the 14-year-old episode. "They were just a bunch of bureaucrats looking over their shoulder,'' she said of the INS agents who prosecuted the case. "It was a time of great fear" (The Seattle Times, 1990).

The experience led her into advocacy for the rights of immigrants, a cause she never gave up. ''The foreign born were the earliest victims of the McCarthy witch hunt,'' she said, speaking to a high school class in 1990. "They still have a hard and uncertain life" (The New York Times, 2000). Wolf herself was finally granted American citizenship in 1974. However, she considered herself not an American but "a citizen of the world."

Call of the Brown Creeper

Wolf took up the mission that most defined her life in 1964, when she became actively involved with the Seattle Audubon Society. Rachel Carson had released her book, Silent Spring, two years earlier, warning that indiscriminate use of pesticides was threatening to rid the earth of songbirds. But more than the book it was a bird-watching trip that turned Wolf into an environmentalist.

Wandering through West Seattle’s Lincoln Park with a friend one day, she noticed a little brown creeper grubbing for bugs in a Douglas fir. "I saw that little brown creeper, and I knew that bird," she said. "It worked hard for a living, and so did I. It had a lifestyle ... just like I had a lifestyle – get up in the morning, eat breakfast, catch a bus and go to work, eat lunch, go back to work, come home at night." Wolf told and retold the story of the brown creeper many times over the coming years; it became what her biographer calls her "signature piece" (Starbuck, 173).

In 1965, at age 67, she retired from her job as John Caughlan’s legal secretary. She was promptly elected secretary of the Seattle Audubon Society, a position she held for nearly 40 years. She proved to be a master organizer. She helped found 21 of the 26 Audubon Society chapters in Washington state, along with another in her hometown of Astoria. Audubon membership went from about 200 to 5,000 members in Seattle and some 18,000 in the state by 1990. In the process, "We turned a bunch of bird watchers into an effective environmental lobby," she said (Starbuck, 187).

Building Coalitions

A turning point for the society and Wolf’s role in it came in 1970, when the Seattle chapter hosted the 65th annual National Audubon Society convention. The convention was held in May, a few weeks after the first Earth Day; Wolf served as chairman. The event brought her to the attention of national leaders of the environmental movement, including J. Michael McCloskey, executive director of the Sierra Club. At his request, she served as president of the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs from 1978 to 1980. She remained a member of the federation’s executive committee, and editor of its newsletter, Outdoors West, until her death.

Almost from the beginning of her involvement with the environmental movement, Wolf emphasized coalition building. She reached out to Northwest Indian tribes, organizing a conference between tribal representatives and environmentalists at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Seattle in 1979. Ten tribes sent delegates, as did 17 environmental groups. She tried to connect middle-class greens with loggers and blue-collar workers, with the poor, and with minorities. She was "unrestrained by political correctness about who you should talk to," said Peter Berle, president of the National Audubon Society from 1985 to 1995. She set up dialogues with "everyone from Communists to corporate executives" (Starbuck, 308).

In 1992, Wolf helped found Seattle’s Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, a group that tries to ensure that low-income and minority groups are not subject to excessive pollution. "The environmental community is almost 100 percent white and middle-class," she said in one speech. "But it’s the low-income neighborhoods where toxic landfills and incinerators are found" (Audubon Magazine). She also said it was in the environmental movement's best interests to build bridges to other groups. "The Audubon Society doesn't have enough clout to save the planet," she argued. "We've got to win the rest of the community, pay attention to their concerns" (Terkel, 139).

She was equally comfortable with grassroots organizing and with policy making at the national level. She testified at Congressional hearings on oil ports and oil pipelines; chaired the Hanford Oversight Committee (opposing a nuclear-waste repository there); and lobbied against the completion of the Columbia Basin Project (which would have added about half a million acres to the area being irrigated with water from the Columbia River). "On any issue she gets involved in, she does her homework and knows what she's talking about," said Helen Engle of Tacoma, a longtime friend of Wolf's and a former member of the National Audubon Society's board of directors. "She knows how to prioritize and only takes on hard stuff. She doesn't mess around with little brush fires" (The Seattle Times, 1998).

One of the causes she embraced was that of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. She traveled to that country five times between 1985 and 1994, becoming more convinced after each trip that the Marxist Sandinistas represented the future of the global environmental justice movement. She praised what she saw as a fusion between stewardship for the land and democratic socialism for the people. In Nicaragua, Wolf found a synthesis between "her past as working-class organizer and her present as environmental organizer," wrote Starbuck (225). If she ever became disenchanted with the Sandinistas, she didn’t speak publicly about it.

"Environmental Angel"

Wolf was much honored during her lifetime, and even beyond, so much so that Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly affectionately called her "Seattle's most adoringly over-publicized old leftist" (2002). The walls of her small apartment in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood were crowded with plaques, awards, and certificates, including the Sol Feinstein Award from State University of New York (1978); the National Audubon Society's Conservationist of the Year Award (1985) and its Medal of Excellence (1997), and the Association of Biologists and Ecologists of Nicaragua's Award for Nature Conservation (1988). Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, Women in Communications, and People's Daily World (official publication of the American Communist Party) were among the other groups that paid homage to her.

The Washington Environmental Council named her "Environmental Angel of the First Order" in 1992. Washington State Governor Mike Lowry declared March 10, 1996 -- her 98th birthday -- as "Hazel Wolf Day." Receiving an honorary doctorate from Seattle University in 1997, she joked "My cup runneth over, but I have to adjust my halo from time to time" (Starbuck, 267).

She remained an avid hiker, camper, kayaker, and birdwatcher until well into her nineties. She claimed to have more than 500 birds on her "lifelist." She credited the restorative powers of nature with giving her the ability to go on, year after year, fighting for the causes she believed in. "We who live in cities lead stressful lives," she said in a speech to students at Hazel Wolf High School on the day that school opened, in September 1999, "and need to refresh ourselves by touching our mother earth from time to time." Nature was "a sure cure for burnout."

She attributed her longevity to a diet of fresh fruit and vegetables ("because I hate to cook"); an even temperament ("I’m never angry"); and ironically, to her bout with tuberculosis (which forced her to quit smoking in her 40s). She followed a simple, almost subsistence-level lifestyle. She never owned a house of her own, and sometimes rented rooms in the houses of friends. In her later years, she lived in a small, rent-subsidized apartment in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, on an income of $714 a month from Social Security. Any money that she received from her various awards went either to the Audubon Society or into her travel fund.

She told the writer Studs Terkel, who profiled her in his 1995 book Coming of Age, that she intended to stay alive until the year 2000, "so I can have been in three centuries. Then I’m going" (141). She died 19 days after achieving that goal. She had been recovering from hip replacement surgery at the home of her daughter, Nadia Dalziel Levick, in Port Angeles, Washington. Complaining of pain, she was taken to a local hospital on January 18 and transferred to a nursing home the next day. She died there, shortly before midnight, a little less than two months shy of her 102nd birthday.

Survivors, in addition to her daughter, included five grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, and four great-great grandchildren. Wolf had often marveled that she had had personal contact with seven generations of her family, from her great-grandmother, who had been born in the early nineteenth century, through her great-great-grandchildren, who would probably live into the late twenty-first century.

She was "a wispy force of nature," the writer Emmett Watson said, someone who could be "hard on the conscience" of those inclined to sloth. Perhaps the word used most often to describe her was "feisty." She was disciplined, irreverent, and could be stubborn. "I’m not opinionated," she once said. "I’m just always right" (Starbuck, 245).

About 900 people gathered in Seattle for her memorial service. Several hundred came together again in honor of what would have been her 105th birthday, in March 2003. She probably would have been bemused by all the attention. "If there's a gathering in my memory, I hope it's a fund-raiser for a good cause," she had told Terkel, adding, "I really don't care whether I'm remembered or not. What you do when you're alive is what counts" (Terkel, 141).


Susan Starbuck, Hazel Wolf: Fighting the Establishment (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002); Studs Terkel, Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century By Those Who’ve Lived It (New York: The New Press, 1995); Janet Burkitt, "Nature’s Centenarian Sentry -- Wetlands Dedicated to the Indomitable Hazel Wolf," The Seattle Times, September 18, 1998, p. B-1; Paul Andrews, "Hazel Wolf: She Attacks Life In A Gently But Visionary Manner," The Seattle Times, Pacific Magazine, February 4, 1990, 8-12; Robert L. Jamieson Jr., "A Golden Century for Hazel Wolf," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 21, 1998, A-1; "Citizenship Denied Red Suspect," Ibid., October 18, 1947, p. 1; "Mrs. Wolf to Ask Delay in Deportation," The Seattle Times, June 2, 1960, p. 14; "Deportation Order Against Woman Upset," Ibid., February 1, 1961, p. 5; Jack Broom, "Honoring Hazel Wolf," ibid., March 4, 1998, p. A-1; John H. Cushman Jr., "Hazel Wolf, 101; Fought for the Environment," The New York Times, January 24, 2000, p. B-8; Jessica Maxwell, "In Memoriam: Hazel Wolf’s Century," Audubon Magazine, March/April 2000 (http://magazine.audubon.org/auduboninaction/action0003.html); Joel Connelly, "Two New Books That Will Stir Your Progressive Blood," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 20, 2002, p. A-2; Hazel Wolf, "Great Women in My Life," speech at Hazel Wolf High School, September 7, 1999, Hazel Wolf website accessed September 2008 (www.members.tripod.com/HazelWolf/greatwomen.html); Emmett Watson, "Hazel Wolf, 87, Mixes Whitewater and Red Political Causes," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 10, 1985, p. C-1; "Celebrating a Legacy," The Seattle Times, March 6, 2003, p. B-2.

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