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A full-time artist, state's first lady mixes passion, responsibilities

| Saturday, March 14, 2015, 9:30 p.m.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
First Lady Frances Wolf discusses her love for art, her marriage with Gov. Tom Wolf and other details during an interview on Thursday, March 12, 2015 in the Pennsylvania Governor's Mansion in Harrisburg.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
First Lady Frances Wolf laughs while discussing her love for art, her marriage with Gov. Tom Wolf and other details during an interview on Thursday, March 12, 2015 in the Pennsylvania Governor's Mansion in Harrisburg.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
First Lady Frances Wolf stands for a portrait on Thursday, March 12, 2015 in the Pennsylvania Governor's Mansion in Harrisburg.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
First Lady Frances Wolf stands for a portrait on Thursday, March 12, 2015 in the Pennsylvania Governor's Mansion in Harrisburg.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
First Lady Frances Wolf discusses her love for art, her marriage with Gov. Tom Wolf and other details during an interview on Thursday, March 12, 2015 in the Pennsylvania Governor's Mansion in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG — The mudslinging, critiques and exaggerated reports during last year's gubernatorial campaign didn't anger Frances Wolf. Not much, anyway; she knew the truth.

“I know Tom,” she said, eyes smiling and hands clasped in her lap. “I'm the one who knows him best.”

Sitting straight-backed on the edge of an overstuffed salmon sofa in a parlor in the governor's residence, Pennsylvania's first lady acknowledges she is still adjusting to the public realities of her husband's elected office.

Before she started spending time in Harrisburg, she put in hours a day painting at her home studio in Mt. Wolf.

Before she became an artist full-time, she worked in publishing and regional planning.

Before the Wolfs' two daughters grew up and moved out, the family ate dinner together every night.

Still, Wolf, 63, said she knows her husband's pursuit of public office was a natural fit. She knows his passion, his drive — and she knows her role alongside Gov. Tom Wolf, her husband of nearly 40 years, will manifest in time.

“He has a doctorate in political science. This is American politics; this is what he does,” she said. “I didn't think about the trappings at all. I just thought of him and the job, and I thought it was a perfect match.”

‘A very close community'

Frances Donnelly Wolf was born in New York, the daughter of parents in the foreign service. She grew up abroad, in Iran, Germany, France, Pakistan and England. She hadn't spent much time in America until she met her husband while they studied history at the University of London.

Even then, she said, she knew he was “quite exceptional.”

They married in Geneva with a 70-person reception in her parents' apartment. They settled in the six-generation home where the governor grew up, in the 1,300-person borough just north of York named for his ancestors.

Wolf describes Mt. Wolf as “a very close community,” one where they volunteered at arts events, nonprofits and at her daughters' schools.

At 40, she returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in studio art from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, where she is a member of the board of trustees. She has a master's degree in art history from Bryn Mawr College.

Rob Evans, a York County artist who curated the inaugural exhibit at the Pennsylvania State Museum, formed a friendship with Wolf about 20 years ago when she volunteered at a York Arts exhibit. They bonded over their shared interest in Antonio Lopez Garcia, a Spanish painter with a magical realism style.

“She's just a wonderful person all the way around,” Evans said, “very generous and quite an intellectual, which I think you can see in her work, as well.”

Wolf paints with oil, mostly on canvas and sometimes wood. She derives inspiration from phrases found in poetry and prose, kept in a notebook and on a board of sticky notes in her studio.

“There's this tension between image and word,” Wolf said. “I use those words, they become the title, but they conjure up some image.”

In one piece, a human figure grabs its knees to its chest, sitting on patterned quilt squares, arranged among the clouds on a blue sky: “That uncertain heaven.”

In another, grapes, bottles and pots sparsely populate three thin shelves: “And yet the Menace of the Years.”

In another, a woman in a wide, white headdress and broad, dark gown stands before flowing, red curtains: “Too timid to become an exception, she became a type.”

Rigorous campaign

Wolf said the idea of her husband running for governor percolated while he was secretary of Revenue under Gov. Ed Rendell, before the 2010 primary season. The dream ended with a phone call.

His family's longtime cabinet-making business, the Wolf Organization, teetered on bankruptcy after the recession. Wolf said her husband knew what to do.

“I still remember the look on his face; I will never forget that,” she said. “It was a bit of grief and sadness, but again he became really successful and turned the whole enterprise around.”

She is proud of how he executed the company's rebound, just as she is proud of his victorious 2014 campaign. The Wolfs put $10 million of their money into the race. She said the campaign season was more rigorous than she expected.

“We've all watched campaign films and the various movies, and they're funny and they're a hoot, but it was hard,” she said. “I popped in and out of the campaign, but Tom absolutely stuck in there and stayed with it.”

She remained “a worrywart” during the campaign, never banking on a win.

“I wasn't privy to all the polling,” she said. “So even at the primary, it came as a surprise.”

Two months into the job, the Wolfs are breaking from tradition by living in their private home, but they will host meetings and meals at the grand, gated governor's residence along the Susquehanna River.

Wolf is struck by the beauty and charm of the place, its chaises tucked in corners and its collection of donated artworks from museums and private citizens.

Her daughters, Sarah, who lives in Brooklyn, and Katie, who lives in San Francisco, stay in close contact. She texts them on her Samsung phone and laughs when the conversation turns to “emojis,” pictorial messages sent on smartphones.

“Friends of mine who have the iPhones have it, and then I get it, and it's all funny faces, and I'm going, ‘What are they trying to say?' ”

Finding a cause

Mary Toomey, who lives two blocks from the Wolfs and knew the governor when he was growing up, said Frances Wolf embodies a true artist's spirit.

“As great as they are, they're just humble people, unassuming, and they always want to be better,” she said. “They're just lovely inside and outside, and that's Frances.”

Before a recent winter storm, Mary's husband, Ron, went to the store for groceries. Someone tapped him on the shoulder — it was Frances, who gave him a hug.

“Right here in this small town, she's just the same person she's always been,” Toomey said.

The only difference this time was the state police trooper by her side.

Wolf said the security detail is the greatest adjustment to life as first lady.

Past spouses of governors, including Marjorie Rendell and Michele Ridge, advised Wolf to take her time in settling into the role.

“I'll grow into it. I have full confidence of that,” she said. “But at this point, I just want to take it slowly and give myself time to see.”

First ladies historically are well-liked and visible, said G. Terry Madonna, professor of political science at Franklin & Marshall College. They often help publicize their husband's platform or choose a topic to promote.

First lady Ginny Thornburgh, for example, was vocal about defending the rights of the disabled, a cause the Thornburghs continued to champion after the administration.

“Governors' wives have had something they have as their project,” Madonna said, “and for some, it's been education, for some art, for some health care, depending on their interest.”

Wolf has not locked down the responsibilities she will have. She remains disciplined about her work. To start, she is spending one to two days a week on state business. She has scheduled visits to schools to promote the governor's education funding plans.

“I would love to see education get the funding it deserves and needs — that the students of Pennsylvania get the education they deserve, and that we allocate the resources to make that happen for them to be successful.”

Wolf is excited to see her husband embrace the challenge. He faces a budget deficit and a Republican-controlled legislature in his first year as governor.

She said he seems to be having fun.

“He's just open to all of this, and it is a real pleasure to watch.”

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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