Tennessee Volunteer Led By Example: A Tribute to Carl Wolfe
The Sierra Club lost a true hero on September 25 when Carl Wolfe died of injuries sustained in an accident near his home in Mountain City, Tennessee. He was 70 years old.
An avid outdoorsman and steadfast volunteer with the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels Program, Wolfe devoted his retirement to environmental causes, most notably his single-minded determination to clean up local creeks and roadways in Johnson County. By his example, he changed local attitudes and inspired a renewed sense of stewardship among his fellow citizens.
"Carl was one of the most natural grassroots activists I've ever met," says friend and local Sierra Club leader Gloria Griffith. "His enthusiasm was boundless and contagious—he was a real driving force. For those of us who are trying to carve out a meaningful life of service, Carl will always be an inspiration."
The couple chose the area for its natural beauty, but were dismayed to find it marred by trash. For years locals had been dumping old appliances, tires, gas tanks, and other junk along Falls Branch Road and in Falls Branch Creek. "The condition of the road, the creek, and the Falls Branch Creek Falls was a disgrace," Iva Lee says.
While still finishing work on their mobile home, Carl found time to bag trash along the Falls Branch Road. He then turned his attention to Fall Branch Creek, which had been a dumping ground for years. Ascertaining that there were no available cleanup funds, he took matters into his own hands, weekly rappelling 50 feet off a bridge to the creek bed, where he cleaned up trash in the creek and at the base of Falls Branch Creek Falls.
The pace picked up in 2007, when Wolfe's granddaughter Mariah, above with Carl, moved to town and began helping out, pulling up trash by rope that her grandfather had bagged down below. Over a six-month period they hauled more than 60 large garbage bags and dozens of old tires and other items out of the creek.
"Some folks said it couldn't be done," Wolfe said at the time, "but when someone tells me I can't do something, it makes me want to prove I can." Word of his good works spread, and in 2008 Governor Phil Bredesen presented him with a Governor's Volunteer Stars Award, given annually to one person from each county in the state. Below, Carl at the awards ceremony in Nashville.
"Carl loved to help people, especially children, as long as the work put him outside," says Griffith. "He was genuinely humble, never bragging about his accomplishments." In addition to jump-starting the Johnson County recycling program, Wolfe led a "Fishing for Kids" program, below, sponsored by the Tennessee Water Sentinels.
Wolfe also spearheaded a program to alert employers to signs of methamphetamine production, a major threat to water quality. The poster he's holding below warns of the dangers of meth production, what to look for, and how to help stop it.
"Carl always led by example," says Water Sentinels national director Scott Dye. "His was a shining example of a life well lived. It's a shame there aren't more Carls in the world." Below, Carl and Iva Lee at a Water Sentinels lunch they held when Dye was visiting last year.
A billboard with the words "Stop Litter" and a photo of Carl and Mariah hauling tires out of Fall Branch now stands as a welcome to Mountain City. Carl and Iva Lee's daughter Brenda has also raised the idea of soliciting support from the Johnson County commissioners to erect a memorial to Carl at the site of Falls Branch Creek Falls, which he worked so hard to keep free of trash.
At Wolfe's memorial service, granddaughter Mariah said she would carry on her grandfather's work, and take Iva Lee, who isn't mobile on her own, to every meeting of the Sierra Club's Watauga Group.
Dye says Wolfe's attitude and approach to life are perfectly summed up in a comment he made to a Sierra Club reporter last year: "Most people are takers," Wolfe said. "The world needs more givers."
All photo by Dennis Shekinah, except Volunteer Award photo courtesy of Volunteer Tennessee.