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November 13, 2000

A man of many moves

By Eric Rangus

"I really, genuinely, have a lot of energy for a lot of stuff,” says David Woolf, director of development at the Emory Eye Center. He makes this statement about an hour into an interview that will last more than twice that time.

Woolf freely admits he has a tendency to ramble. But his company is so engaging and his interests so wide, that his tangential conversational style can be forgiven.

Prior to coming to Emory in 1989, Woolf was vice president for development for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He worked with the Dallas Opera and Dallas Theater Center before that. Those artistically leaning jobs aside, Woolf’s first degree was in the more serious subjects of math and psychology. Woolf also earned a degree in music (his instrument was classical guitar), but he eventually came to terms with the fact that his future lay in administration.

“I knew about two-thirds of the way through music school that I was not going to be making a living through music. I loved it, but I didn’t have the talent most of my colleagues had,” he said.

Instead, music became a hobby. In the late 1980s, with three other musicians, Woolf formed an Irish- and New England-influenced acoustic band called Full Circle (they sound a little like The Chief-tains) that still makes occasional appearances around town. The music features not only fiddle and piano, but an instrument Woolf picked up in 1985 and now plays a great deal—the hammered dulcimer.

“The last few years, my musical interests have shifted a bit,” Woolf said. “I’ve gotten really turned on by a body of music that was written by Malcolm Dalglish.”

Dalglish is viewed as one of the world’s most accomplished hammer dulcimer players, and Woolf lists as one of his most cherished musical moments the chance to play with Dalglish when he visited Atlanta for a couple performances—one at Emory—in October 1999. Soon after Woolf decided to tackle one of Dalglish’s most difficult works.

“Hymnody of Earth” would be a challenge for any musician. The 19-song, 57-minute Daglish piece weaves hammered dulcimer and percussion with a choir singing the poetry of Wendell Berry. The lyrics touch on the wonder of nature and expressions of humanity.

Dalglish was the only person to have performed the ethereal piece live, and Woolf even needed to have made a special instrument to play the part. (Dalglish plays a one-of-a-kind dulcimer, and Woolf commissioned a builder to construct a copy.)

Leading up to his recent Oct. 22 performance at Central Congregational Church, which featured the Callanwolde Youth Chorale, Woolf practiced at least two hours a day. “It was certainly one of the biggest musical things I’ve ever been involved in, and no question one of the most exciting,” he said.

And the results were quite spectacular.

“He would change the mood with his rhythms,” said Jack Gilbert, associate vice president of Institutional Advancement, who was in attendance. “David would lace his music around the singing; it was really quite wonderful. It was so well done that it almost seemed spontaneous.”

Woolf has other musical outlets as well. One is his participation with English Country Dance Atlanta. While he occasionally picks up an instrument to play for the dancers, he spends much of his time on the floor or teaching the dances.

English country dance has a style that’s a bit more sophisticated and less boisterous than its cousin, contra dancing. Woolf describes it like this: “Think about the dancing you see in Jane Austen movies, then take away the costumes, because mostly we’re in jeans and tennis shoes.”

Woolf and his wife Mim also participate in weekend dance festivals around the Southeast; in fact, they met on the dance floor. But don’t get the idea that Woolf’s life is all play and no work, however. As director of development, Woolf is the Eye Center’s point man for fund raising. By his estimation, he has been involved in the acquisition of a baker’s dozen of million-dollar gifts. The most special came in February 1998.

That was when the Eye Center was throwing a surprise party celebrating Chair Thomas Aaberg’s 10th anniversary at the helm. Woolf had been involved in the preparation for more than a year, and one of the gifts was to be a $1 million endowment in Aaberg’s honor (The Aaberg Fellowship).

Except only one week before the event Woolf, had raised just $900,000. Since he’d already had a large ceremonial check for $1 million printed, Woolf had to work fast to fill the account. Just 48 hours before the party, Woolf found the money.

“It’s safe to say that this is one of the strongest fundraising programs at the University,” Woolf said of the eye center. “I’m pleased that I’m able to be a part of it.”

While Woolf’s plate appears quite full, he is still able to pack even more onto it. He is an avid reader, is active in his church and does occasional professional audio work. (You’re likely to see him behind the sound board at Jim Flannery’s Celtic Christmas.) But even with his many interest and full professional life, he still makes family time a priority.

He is also one of the driving forces (along with Jae Schmidt, ear, nose and throat administrator at the clinic) behind the Emory Chess Club, which meets every Monday night for three hours at Panera Bread in Emory Village.

Woolf began playing in high school but never became a serious student of the game. A couple years ago, though, that changed.

“I woke up one morning [in 1998] and thought, ‘This is a piece of unfinished business for me; I’d really like to learn to play this game,’” Woolf said. He recruited a chess coach and even began playing in some Tuesday night tournaments at the Atlanta Chess Center in Decatur.

“I got my butt kicked,” Woolf said. “I was in way over my head. That’s when I realized that I needed to work on it a little more before I went back.”

So he studied. And practiced. His interest waned a bit as his planning of the Aaberg anniversary chewed up much of his time. But this past January, the chess bug bit again. All the lessons and studying and reading were fine, but they weren’t enough.

“I needed some folks to play with, and that’s why I went to those Tuesday night tournaments,” he said. “But that wasn’t the environment I needed; I needed something less formal.”

Woolf was put in touch with Schmidt, who had the same idea about starting a chess night. Everything came together in April, and the club has been a staple ever since.

Participation varies, but the club has had as many as 16 games going at once. And since they are at Panera for 90 minutes after closing, the players get rock-bottom deals on food from the hosts.

Not against going to extremes for his hobbies, this past summer Woolf attended the Castle Chess Camp in Pennsylvania. The weeklong event hosted about 90 people—a mere dozen of them adults—and Woolf got to room with a grandmaster, Art Bisguier.

“I barely won a game all week, but I did better in the tournament at the end,” Woolf said. Still, the experience made him want to try it again–only this time, the camp will be held at Emory.

Next June, Castle will sponsor a camp on campus. Classes will be held in the Candler library. It will feature daily tournaments as well as a large tournament at the end. All ages will be welcome.

“This will keep me focused for a while; this is huge,” Woolf said. “It will be a first-class, first-rate faculty, and we’re going do it up right. I am putting it together as we speak.”

“When I’m not practicing. Or raising money.”


Back to Emory Report Nov. 13, 2000