Life Stories

A special touch, in the theater and technology

CorrespondentJune 23, 2013 

Al Wolfheimer

  • Albert Daniel “Wolf” Wolfheimer

    Born Nov. 16, 1922.

    1943-1946 serves in the U.S. Army Air Forces.

    1944 marries Beverly Estile.

    1947 begins working for IBM.

    1965 moves to Raleigh from Endicott, N.Y.

    1978-2009 serves on the board of directors at Raleigh Little Theater.

    1982 is News & Observer Tar Heel of the Week.

    1986 retires from IBM.

    1989 wins the Raleigh Medal of Arts.

    2006 is widowed.

    Dies June 4.

Al Wolfheimer met Beverly, his bride-to-be, while serving in the Army Air Forces in Memphis during World War II.

They married when he was 22 and she was 19. They never had children, and they shared many interests, volunteering together at Raleigh Little Theater, playing bridge and watching old films.

When Beverly died after they had been married for 62 years, Al Wolfheimer became withdrawn, friends say.

“They were a very, very close couple,” said longtime friend Judi Wilkinson. “I don’t think he ever really recovered from her loss.”

When Lou Sedaris, a neighbor and former colleague, noticed Wolfheimer becoming reclusive, Sedaris broached the idea of playing host to a movie night. Wolfheimer had built an honest-to-goodness cinema off the side of his Raleigh home some time ago, and it needed to be used.

Wolfheimer agreed, and Sedaris went so far as to print playbills as invitations to the potluck affair. The playbill noted the showtime and an intermission complete with refreshments (the theater had its own popcorn maker and Coke machine).

Wolfheimer’s stadium-seated theater held 27 seats, but some audience members had to watch from the carpeted stairs. Perched in his projection booth, surrounded by friends and watching a classic flick, Wolfheimer was back in his element.

“Al came to life after we did that,” Sedaris said. They went on to organize such gatherings every few months for years.

Wolfheimer died this month at the age of 90. Since moving to Raleigh in 1965, he played a pivotal role in the film – and theater – scenes, repairing machinery, loaning his projector and generally being of service. He did not limit his stewardship to film buffs, however.

Folks are wondering who is going to repair the Triangle’s movie projectors now that he’s gone.

Early days in the theater

Wolfheimer was born in Philadelphia. In high school he worked weekends in area theaters as the head projectionist, his family said. As a teen he bought his own projector and drove around with it in the back of his car, renting it out on demand.

After graduating from a vocational high school, he worked servicing sound amplifiers before enlisting in the military. He was a radio operator aboard a C-46 Commando transport aircraft and served in such places as Egypt, Iran and Pakistan, his family said.

His formal education stopped after high school, but after the war he went on to have an esteemed career at IBM.

“He never went to college, and IBM hired him in spite of that,” said Peter Corson, president of Cinema Inc., Raleigh’s film society, of which Wolfheimer was a longtime member. “They recognized something within him when they hired him. And ultimately they gave him a tremendous amount of responsibility.”

Corson said he was impressed with Wolfheimer’s technical talents and giving heart but believes that Wolfheimer’s legacy rests more with his work at IBM than with the local film community. During his tenure, Wolfheimer helped develop the bar code scanner. He was a modeler for IBM for most of his career, working to put the designs into effect, bringing ideas to life.

“That to me, because I am a mechanical engineer, that to me was much more significant,” Corson said. “This was the most inventive thing, for sure, for me. That took quite a jump to do.”

Wolfheimer’s family said his proudest accomplishment was in developing a blood separator that is used to treat leukemia patients, spinning off the white blood cells and then returning the purified blood to the body.

Sedaris, who worked at IBM as well, said a colleague had a teenage son with leukemia and had asked the doctors what sort of machine was needed to help advance treatment. Their response was the blood separator. The colleague got permission from IBM to focus on the project, and he tapped Wolfheimer to be his assistant. The son died not a year into their work, but the machine that was ultimately created went on to save lives.

Lending a hand, technically

That Wolfheimer would take particular interest in a colleague with a sick child sounded right to those who knew him. Wolfheimer was a News & Observer Tar Heel of the Week in 1982, where he was mainly recognized for his efforts with the nonprofit Raleigh Little Theater.

“If I can volunteer to help somebody when I have an area of expertise, I like to do it,” he told the reporter.

He lent his technical expertise to the theater in ways that saved the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Linda Bamford, at one time the theater’s managing director.

“I have never known a more dedicated, talented, selfless volunteer than Al. I mean, he was remarkable,” she said. “He could just see the solution in his mind’s eye.”

He did everything from oversee the construction of the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre and the lobby of the Cantey V. Sutton Theatre to installing upgraded sound and lighting systems. He took on the epic job of installing more than 250 donated theater seats – learning the hard way that they come in different widths and needed to be installed in different angles. It was a veritable jigsaw puzzle of seats he took the time to unravel.

Honored by ‘The Wolfies’

Wolfheimer was known for not suffering fools gladly and could be brusque at times. But his generosity knew no bounds. Volunteering 20 hours a week was commonplace for Wolfheimer, and the annual volunteer awards at the theater were renamed “The Wolfies” in his honor.

“He was a curmudgeon, he really was,” Wilkinson said with a laugh. “He was a curmudgeon with a marshmallow center.”

When his mother-in-law got older, he built an apartment for her in his home, said his brother-in-law Dave Estile of Charlotte.

“I could never pay him back for everything he did for me. He took care of our family in many, many ways.”

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