Roy Wolfe

1917 - 2014

Roy Wolfe

One of the pioneers in the field of tourism geography, Roy Wolfe, passed away on November 15, 2014, a few days before his 97th birthday.

Roy I. Wolfe, known as “Izzy” to his family, was born Israel Wolbromski in Poland in 1917. In 1922 the family moved to Canada where he acquired his English name. He grew up in the Kensington Market area of Toronto, where he also spent his latter years.

The Great Depression interrupted his education but he received a bachelor’s degree in Biology from McMaster University in 1940. During the Second World War he served in the Medical Corps of the Canadian Army. Then between 1945 and 1947 he headed the Visual Education Service of the Veterans’ Rehabilitation Institute within Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (now University). During this time he studied for a master’s degree in Biology at the University of Toronto including a dissertation on the variation of finger prints across different Canadian ethnic populations.

In the next phase of his life, Wolfe recognized geography as the discipline most closely aligned with his own interests. He took a position at the Department of Highways of Ontario (DHO) in 1952 where he rose through ranks as Statistician, Planner, Geographic Advisor, and Research Geographer. During this time he studied for a PhD in Geography at the University of Toronto. Initially the doctoral committee refused to approve his proposed research on summer cottages because tourism and recreation were not seen as appropriate subjects for serious scholarly research at the time. The committee relented after a year and he undertook a study of the location, ownership, and use of summer cottages in the province of Ontario, as well as their owners’ travel patterns. The doctorate was awarded in 1956.

At the DHO Wolfe made a significant contribution to economic planning and transportation policy. He was also an early adopter of mainframe computers to facilitate statistical analysis. After he was recruited into the faculty of the Geography Department at York University in 1967, he remained active as a planning consultant, participating in nearly two dozen tourism-related projects for governments in Canada, the United States and the UK.

At York University he taught courses in the regional geography of Canada, transportation geography, and recreation geography. His research continued in tourism geography, focused on the interactions between urban centers and nearby recreation areas. His numerous scholarly publications were instrumental in the creation of the new sub-field of recreation geography; he also made significant contributions to the literature on transportation and planning.

Wolfe had been profoundly deaf since 1947 but this did not hinder his love of teaching and interacting with students. He could lip read in English, as well as Yiddish, French and German. He also enlisted the aid of others to take notes for him during conversations, lectures, and presentations. This role was frequently performed by his devoted wife, Rosemary, as well as by students or colleagues.

The profound hearing loss made him value clear and elegant writing as a way to communicate effectively. He devoted long hours to editing and marking students’ essays, trying to improve their writing skills, frequently covering the page with red ink. One former student recalled that he “made the pages bleed!” He eventually compiled a seven-page guide for students called “Hints, Admonitions, and Downright Threats from a Jaded Reader of Too Many Sloppy Essays.”

Despite his high standards and formidable nature, he was much loved by students. In 1981 he was successfully nominated for the annual teaching award of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA). Subsequently the Canadian Association of Geographers created a teaching award in his name.

In addition to duties at York, he held visiting positions at the State University of Washington, WA, Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, NS, and Atkinson College in York, ON. He was also a member of the IGU Commissions on Transportation, and on Tourism and Recreation.

Wolfe retired in 1983 having left a substantial intellectual and personal legacy. He legitimized research on tourism in geography, undertook pioneering scholarship, and inspired many geographers in his generation. His work provided the intellectual foundation for much of the research in contemporary tourism geography, with his publications on second homes cited more in the decade prior to his death than any time previous. His work was also influential beyond tourism and geography in the fields of regional science and marketing.

In 1988, the Association of American Geographers established the annual Roy Wolfe Award in his honor which recognizes “outstanding contributions to the field and discipline of Recreation, Tourism and Sport Geography.” The award has been won by geographers from Canada, Finland, New Zealand, and the United States to date.

Roy was predeceased by his wife Rosemary and daughter Cynthia but leaves behind four children (Robert David, Richard, Judy and Mitzi), six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.