It was an afternoon in the Spring of 1998 when an unknown student from a Middle Eastern nation walked into Dr. Ron Wolfe’s corner office in Alumni Coliseum, then the home of Eastern Kentucky University’s Department of Communication.
Wolfe, who had just recently been diagnosed with a melanoma in his left eye, was anxious about an impending experimental treatment at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. Department chair at the time, he recognized the burly male as a mass communications major “but had never had him in class or really gotten to know him.”
The student sat down in front of Wolfe’s desk, looked up and in a deep, shaky voice, began to speak: “I’ve been thinking about you, and I just wanted you to know it will be all right.”
“Somehow, he had heard of the diagnosis … and he just wanted me to know he cared,” Wolfe penned in a Christmas letter to friends, family and associates later that year. “It was one of those moments that makes us human.”
Almost two decades later, Wolfe was rummaging through a Lambda Sigma Honor Society File in EKU Special Collections and Archives. For many years the adviser to EKU’s campus chapter as well as a national board member, he was looking for an old program. He not only found the object of his search, but something else that “brought a lump to my throat.”
It was a copy of that 1998 holiday letter that brought to mind again the visit by the unknown, but compassionate student. When EKU Archives sponsored a contest recently for users to tell about a treasure they found there, Wolfe’s recounting of that letter and the memories it evoked took the top prize.
“His open compassion was clear,” Wolfe wrote in his contest entry. “We sat there in silence for what seemed like hours. I was so touched by his caring I was simply speechless. I did manage to say ‘thank you’ before he quietly stood up, shook my hand, and left the office. It was a memory that was etched in my mind at the moment, but one that in time had slipped away until I saw the Christmas letter. I had used his simple statement to let my family and friends know that ‘everything will be all right.’
“The biggest thing that hit me was how much better I felt after he left,” Wolfe recalled. “I didn’t worry about it as much.”
Though Wolfe endured painful treatment and eventually lost vision in his left eye, the outcome could have been much worse, even fatal. After all, the melanoma was only an inch from his brain. He has returned to the hospital annually to ensure that his melanoma is still in remission and all these years later still marvels at “all the love and support I received from family, friends, colleagues and that one student who gave me some assurance when I most needed it. His simple message left me with a little less fear of the future and a willingness to face whatever I found there. Finding that letter in the Archives brought back a memory that was a defining moment in my life and my teaching career.”
Wolfe taught at EKU from 1979 to 2000, along the way winning the University’s highest honor for teaching excellence, the Foundation Professorship, and retiring with Professor Emeritus honors. Prior to joining the Eastern faculty, he served as assistant director and then director of alumni relations at the University. After retirement, he remained active with the University, especially with the Retirees Association, Friends of the Library and Colonel Club. He also served as a professor and college administrator for six years in Dubai.
In fact, he was in Dubai when America was attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. Wolfe remembers “complete strangers showing compassion to me,” assuring him, “That’s not how we are.”
Of course, his experience in 1998 had taught him that.