Still Dallas’ devotee
By Deb Silverthorn
“Rhea” could stand for Radiant Honorable Encouraging Angel, and those adjectives echo throughout the land when talking about Rhea Wolfram. At 103, and nearly six months more, the fiery pistol whose fingerprints are set in the Jewish and greater Dallas community, isn’t slowing down.
“My moral compass has kept me going,” said Rhea, “and my life is strengthened by faith.”
Born in Newport News, Virginia, to Etta and Samuel Mirmelstein, and the sister of Jesse, Benson and Esther, all of blessed memory, Rhea has always had a strong spirit and family has always come first.
“We were a very small Jewish community but connection to heritage, and knowing what being a Jew meant, was, and to me still is, very important,” said Rhea. She was raised at Rodef Sholom Temple, where her grandfather, Rabbi Abraham BenZion Mirmelstein, was the first rabbi.
Editor of the Newport News High School newspaper The Beacon, president of National Honor Society, member of the National Thespian Society and of the Quill and Scroll international honor society for high school journalists, Rhea was the salutatorian of her class of 1935.
During her freshman year at College of William and Mary, Rhea lived at home, making the 20-mile commute each day. She supported her family by helping her brother Jesse, who was born blind, since she was a child. After 21 hours each semester while involved in clubs including the National Council of Christians and Jews, she graduated with honors with a bachelor’s degree in history while minoring in sociology and education. She also earned a collegiate teaching certificate.
Rhea taught for a number of years, her career beginning at the Armstrong School in Elizabeth City County, Virginia, where she became well-known, in a manner she’d rather forget.
“I was going to take my students, seventh graders, to visit Hampton University, a historically Black college, and after a number of parents complained and wanted me dismissed, there was quite an uproar,” said Rhea. “Ultimately, there was a lot of publicity — even articles in the paper — but the school board met and allowed me to take my students. Forty-eight of the 55 went. I stood up for my principles, for what I believed in. It’s something I’ve taught my own children, and my students, all of my life.”
Rhea and Dr. Julius “Julie” Wolfram, who were married June 21, 1942, remained each other’s most loved and best friend, until he died in March 2011. “He was charming, good-looking and so darn smart. He was a renaissance man who was my intellectual catalyst, and I was his dance and driving instructor.”
When they were first married, Julie practiced in Bound Brook, New Jersey, and Rhea worked as an administrative clerk in the Advocate General’s office at Belle Mead Quartermaster Depot. She recalls going to New York to deliver papers under the guise of “purchasing uniforms.” After the war, she learned she’d delivered information about the atomic bomb.
Julie enlisted in officer training camp in Pennsylvania and Rhea returned home, living with her family while working for the U.S. Army, handling secret documents, at the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation, where she also served as an air raid warden.
The couple reunited when Julie was based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Rhea worked at the Judge Advocate General Officer Candidate School with faculty who later served as judges in the Nuremberg trials.
In 1945, Julie was stationed in Dallas and the couple began their long affiliation with Temple Emanu-El, then led by Rabbi David Lefkowitz. Rhea volunteered at the Red Cross and Baylor Medical Center. After a short return to Michigan, in 1946 Julie returned to serve in Dallas. When he exited the service, he joined the faculty at Southwestern Medical School, becoming one of Dallas’ most esteemed internal medicine physicians and cardiologists. He was involved in many civic and Jewish community organizations as well.
Rhea and Julie raised their family in Dallas and now the next branches of the family tree include son Michael and his wife Amy, and their children Matthew and Bradford Wolfram; son Steven and his former wife Mary Jane share children Laura (Ted Scott) Wolfram, Alice (Matthew Underwood) Wolfram, Nathalie (Seth Martin) Wolfram, Sophie (Kyle Rentschler) Wolfram and, with his wife Elvire, son Felix Wolfram; son Richard and his wife Christina, and their daughter Alicia; and Rhea’s great-grandchildren Caleb Martin, Lucinda Rentschler, Mary, Amy and Claire Scott, Lydia, Caroline and Samuel Underwood, as well as a ninth great-grandchild due next month.
“Mom knows more people than anyone and she’s loved, and beloved, by more people than anyone,” said Michael. “She was called ‘Via Rhea’ when we were kids because she was always driving carpools for us, and our friends, wherever we needed to be. She was, and is, the Energizer Bunny — always going. Always strong.”
“We were the focus of her attention, and she always conveyed the importance of school and of learning. She’s never been short of intellectual challenge,” said Steven, adding that although the family lives in California, Connecticut, France, Montana and Serbia, his mother never misses an important occasion. “She connects with us regularly and never forgets a life event, celebrating us wherever we are.”
“Mom has always been strong, always stuck it out no matter what,” said Richard. “Once, while we were climbing Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, Mom’s pants were a bit tight. She took them off, wrapped them discreetly around her waist and she kept going until we reached the top. Resilient — it’s who she is.”
Rhea led many committees at Temple Emanu-El, including the search that resulted in the hiring of Simon Sargon former music director. She was a founding member of Dallas’ Brandeis University charter chapter; she served as a participant in the White House Conference on Children and Youth; and, in 1947, she wrote a guide for the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas for refugees resettling here.
Still involved with many groups, she’s been a member of the American Jewish Committee, Charter 100 of Dallas women’s group, the Dallas City Council Flood Control and Drug Committees, the Dallas County Medical Society Auxiliary, Friends of the Dallas Library, Goals for Dallas, Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women and many other organizations.
“Rhea is a giant among us, involved in more than anyone knows,” said Renee Karp, NCJW past president. “She is an absolute authority and strength combined with pure kindness. There’s no one like her.”
Rhea, who at first volunteered to help students with college counseling advice, later founded college counseling programs at Greenhill School, where she worked from 1965 to 1982, as well as at The Episcopal School of Dallas and The Winston School. Recognized nationally, she also co-founded the Texas Association for College Admission Counseling and is a longtime member of the Independent Educational Consultant Association.
“I’ve always been a matchmaker for the students. Motivation and determination compensate for aptitude,” said Rhea, who continued working with students privately until the beginning of the pandemic. “You have to find each child’s strength and minimize their weaknesses. You must inspire kids to know they are not a number, but each one is filled with texture.”
Many of her students, thousands through the years, remain in touch.
“Rhea’s amazing. She’s always worked with each student, getting to know them and then finding ‘the’ place for them,” said Karen (nee Netzer) Ranen, who graduated from The Hockaday School and, with Rhea’s guidance, went to the University of Texas.
“When we decided to move to private school, she helped us find ‘the’ place for our daughters,” says Ranen. Her girls, pre-pandemic, regularly visited Rhea, learning from her and building their own relationship — so much so that she attended the girls’ bat mitzvah, kvelling like they were her own. “Rhea remembers everything about everyone, and she’s always cared about helping everyone she meets to flourish.”
Seven years ago, Rhea moved to The Tradition in Dallas. She is now 103, and many of her family and friends have died, but she doesn’t “let go” or forget anyone. Students, congregants, neighbors and more are remembered by her, and she by them.
“I was looking for a part-time job and someone introduced us, but Rhea was in the hospital. I showed up with a stenographer’s pad and took notes as I pushed her wheelchair to X-ray. I didn’t even know if I had a job, or what she’d be paying me, for two weeks but I kept going,” said Ellen Gordesky, a friend of close to 45 years. “She was dedicated to her students, their parents, her children’s friends and to foreign exchange students. So many of those still keep in touch.
“Being a friend of Rhea’s is to know a true friend. She’s still one of the dearest people in my life,” said Ellen. She and her late husband Joseph were close friends of the Wolframs for years. “With a zest for life that always has her moving, learning and doing, Rhea’s my idol. She’s a leader in every way,” Gordesky added.
Rhea, who used to play golf, tennis and needlepoint, now enjoys watching the Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers and tennis; playing mah jongg, knitting, taking water aerobics and eating a good bit of lemon meringue pie — her favorite.
“There’s no secret to 103, other than waking up each morning, taking advantage of every minute and being grateful,” Rhea said, with her ever-thoughtful, intentional and kind look in her eyes.
“I’ll tell you,” she says, “I’m grateful today.”