NEW YORK – When Bill de Blasio, New York’s new Mayor, welcomed the Greek-American community to the annual celebration of Greek Independence at Gracie Mansion, he looked around for his Director of Intergovernmental Affairs who has already established a reputation for self-effacement.
“Where is Emma Wolfe; where is she hiding?” He called her “The Greeks’ secret weapon,” but he didn’t need any weapons because he disarmed the gathering with his knowledge and admiration for Hellenism and the community.
The guests were also impressed by his appreciation for the fourth-generation Greek-American with roots in Mani, and it was clear it went beyond gratitude for the major role Wolfe played in getting him elected Public Advocate in 2008 and as his Deputy Campaign manager for Mayor in 2012.
Capitalnewyork.com has written that “He counts her among one of his most-trusted aides.”
Wolfe brings a brand of energy and dedication to public service, and a love for her family and appreciation for the values they transmitted and examples they set for her that was very familiar to people at the celebration.
Asked what she learned from her parents that help her, Wolfe said “I can’t put it into words. My mom is by far the biggest influence in my life. She is the hardest worker I know and she’s just got a ton of integrity and is smart and I could not be a prouder daughter.”
Her mother, Kate Maguire is an actress and the Artistic Director, and CEO of Massachusetts’ Berkshire Theatre Group, but she could not wait to pay tribute to her own mother, Jennie (Sperounis) Maguire, whose recent passing at 88 the family is mourning.
Jennie (Yanoula) was the youngest of eight children and no one in her family could speak English when they started school, but she rapidly learned the importance of communication and a commitment to excellence.
Maguire said, “When I was four my mother took me to drama and elocution lessons because she believed that if you could speak the language powerfully and collect your ideas you will succeed.”
Community service has deep roots in Wolfe’s family. Jennie was active in the Philoptochos and the Daughters of Penelope, and her husband, Jimmy, who was a Lowell, MA police officer for 51 years, was president of the AHEPA chapter.
Among the things Kate learned from them and developed through her work in the tough theater industry and conveyed to her daughter are patience and communications skills. “Communication is why I am in the theater …it was all about my mother and what she learned when she came here. ”
The passion and commitment to excellence percolated to Emma (Emelia), her twin sister, Isadora, a dancer and an actress who is currently abroad dancing, and her brother Alexander Hill, a film studies student at Syracuse University.
The classic Greek-American commitment to education reigned in her family and Wolfe said she attended “public schools all the way.”
She lived in Lowell until she was nine years old and then moved to Western Massachusetts. She would come back every weekend to stay with her grandparents or her father, and attended Sunday at Holy Trinity of Lowell. “That was my ritual. My mom did more of the 24/7 rituals but, but we did the real deal every Sunday.”
Wolfe came to New York to study at Barnard. “I knew that I wanted to live in a city,” after living in small towns. She looked at schools in a few cities, but her mother suggested she take a look at Barnard College. “It was one of the few colleges we visited and it felt right” – she said the Greek architecture and the names of Great Greeks on the façade of the library made her feel at home – “and I fell in love with New York.”
She majored in Urban Studies, “the perfect major to learn about the city…I had a tremendous experience and I didn’t want to leave.”
The path to government began with community service work and organizing – there was some student government activity, too – “it’s hard for me to think of a time when I was serious about something else,” she said, “but I always have great respect for the arts because it’s the field my mother and my sister work in.”
Wolfe took the ability to connect with and motivate people that ran in her family to groups such as ACORN, America Coming Together, and the Health Care Workers Union 1199SEIU. She then joined the Working Families Party, where she ran campaigns across the city and state.
She believes she has brought those experiences to bear on her work at City Hall to get the most for the people of New York out of government’s resources.
Added to everything she has learned from the great activists and organizers she has worked with are experiences with her new colleagues. “They are people who are very committed to the bottom line, focusing on accomplishments and results, and not getting lost in the conventional wisdom and political punditry of the day-to-day.”
At the end of the administration’s third month, Wolfe said that “more than anything, every day I learn a tremendous amount from the Mayor and other members of the cabinet, the deputy mayors, the budget director, and all the great folks who work at City Hall.”
GREEK DÉJÀ VU
The annual celebration of Greek Independence Day at Gracie Mansion had some déjà vu moments. Just as the community was proud of Wolfe’s predecessor, Greek-American Haeda Mihaltses, so they have embraced Wolfe.
“Greek-Americans and Greek New Yorkers are a welcoming bunch,” she told TNH. “I certainly feel blessed and honored to be a part of this and I am happy to have my mom here today.”
Asked if she had a message for Greek-Americans Wolf replied “we have been grateful for all of the support from the Greek-American community of New York. The mayor has been very impressed by their unity and enthusiasm… during the campaign I distinctly remember that during our visit to the Archdiocese last year when he met with Archbishop Demetrios and Fr. Alex Karloutsos. It was a moving moment for him.”
And for the fourth-generation American who loves to shine the spotlight on others, but whose achievements draw it back to her.