Joe Wolf leads St. Matthew School in Cedar Rapids
By Katie Mills Giorgio
CEDAR RAPIDS — The end of the school year at St. Matthew School in Cedar Rapids is quickly approaching, and it’s sure to be one chock-full of emotion as Principal Joe Wolf retires after serving the school for 32 years.
Wolf arrived in 1986 to take on the role as principal. “They say time flies when you are having fun, and the past 32 years have been amazing,” Wolf said.
His relationship with Catholic education goes back 56 years by Mr. Wolf’s count, starting with his own schooling. “Parochial education has always been an important part of my life,” he said, noting that he started at Visitation Catholic School in Stacyville, Iowa. When his family moved to Mason City, his parents chose to send him to Newman High School. “The decision was made to stay with parochial education, and the rest is history.”
After graduating from UNI, Mr. Wolf started teaching and coaching and did so for seven years—while earning his master’s degree from Clarke College — before getting into administration. He held roles at Holy Family School in Mason City; St. Columbkille School in Dubuque; Immaculate Conception School in Kieler, Wisconsin; Calmar-Festina-Spillville (CFS) School in Calmar; and SS. Peter & Paul School in Petersburg before coming to St. Matthew School.
“I always joke that I applied for the job because I wanted to be closer to the Hawkeyes,” he laughed.
An avid sports fan, Wolf’s co-workers and students wouldn’t be surprised by the joke. Wolf — who played baseball in high school and college and was nearly a major league player — is not shy about cheering on his favorite teams, especially the New York Yankees.
Of course the fond memories, sporting or otherwise, add up over the years. Mr. Wolf counts the following as some of his favorites: S.M.O.R. – St. Matthew Outdoor Retreat at Camp EWALU, Rainbow Day, school liturgies, the Zaner-Bloser Handwriting Contest, being slimed and taped to the wall as the incentive for fundraisers, greeting the children in the morning, Pack the Gym Night and Pack the Balcony, Christmas concerts, Catholic Schools Week and singing the school fight song. “Those are some of the things I will miss the most. It’s the little things you remember,” he said, glancing over at the shelves lining the walls of his office featuring all the notes from students, awards and knick-knacks he’s collected over the years.
Indebted to his parents for the choices they made to send him to Catholic school, Mr. Wolf has always made it a priority to welcome as many families at St. Matthew School as possible. “I would never turn away a family because they couldn’t pay for a Catholic education,” he said.
School Board President Bill Renner sees this as part of his legacy to the school and community.
“He wants to include everybody. And his longevity as principal is a testament to his willingness to work with families to keep St. Matthew School going.”
St. Matthew fifth grade teacher Patty Freeman agreed.
“Mr. Wolf wants everyone to have a chance to be part of a Catholic education, and he has worked hard to help families attain that over the years,” she said. “He lives his faith in his daily actions with the students, parents and teachers.”
Sharing his faith and growing in it along with his students has been important to Wolf. “We are all on a journey with Jesus, and each one is different. I see my job, like anyone else, helping each other grow stronger in our faith each day.”
Wolf, a talented guitar player, has led the students in song at weekly Mass and has been a strong proponent of introducing contemporary songs for the children to sing and clap along to during the liturgy. He said he’s also proud of the service learning projects the teachers implemented over the years.
Having worked at one school for more than three decades, Wolf has seen his fair share of changes. He helped get the before and after school care program started, which in later years blossomed into building the Early Childhood Center. He oversaw building additions and renovations. He’s proud of the nutrition program and how it has developed over the years. And he recognized the importance of changing to a preschool through fifth grade school so junior high could be held at Regis Middle School when Xavier High School was built.
There have been huge changes to the school’s technology, something Mr. Wolf is proud to have stayed on top of all these years. “We went from having IBMs donated by Rockwell Collins and creating a small computer lab to hosting Tech Walks to raise money for Smart Boards and Wi-Fi access and purchasing iPads for every classroom,” he said. “It’s super to have that but the need will never stop. You can’t let your guard down. And I think we are ahead of the ball game at St. Matt’s, and that’s a complement to our parents. I’ve had such a strong parent support system here over the years.”
Not surprisingly, Wolf is one to give credit to his team of teachers and staff members. “I have fond memories, and I’m so thankful for all the teachers gave to this school. This feels like a family. We are there for each other. We go the extra mile for each other. The staff that I have had the privilege of working with the past 32 years who have been so committed to Catholic education. I cannot thank them enough for the privilege of being a part of the St. Matthew community.”
Wolf has been around long enough to see his former students return as parents with their own children enrolled at St. Matt’s. “When I see former students bring their own children in, I think their own parents did a great job raising them and we just added to it. It’s always great to see them back. I’m just grateful to all the students that were and are part of the St. Matthew community and attended our school with open minds, boundless energy and witnessing to others what it means to be a ‘Jaguar.’”
“And I can say I enjoyed every day,” he added. “It went too fast. When I hear that it’s been 32 years I just want to ask where did the time go? But it’s time for someone else to grab the reigns.”
Wolf said he’s always up for a challenge but felt that the time was right for retirement as he wants to spend more time with his family, including his four grandchildren. “My wife, Rosie, and I also want to be able to visit places whenever the desire hits us and to be able to enjoy nature, golfing, fishing, walking … just being able to enjoy God’s great earth.”
So when the new school year rolls around next fall, you’ll likely find Wolf on the golf course. “I’ll plan an 8:15 tee time that morning,” he said. “I’ll say a little thank you to Jesus just like during morning prayer here at school and then I’ll hit the ball and go.”
While Wolf may be hanging up his principal hat at the end of this school year, the saying at St. Matthew School goes, once a Jaguar, always a Jaguar. And Wolf surely will be.
Joe Wolf (above) has worked throughout his career to make Catholic school an option for families of all financial means and helped found the before and after school program at the Cedar Rapids school he leads. (Contributed photo)