The executive editor of Chronicles, Aaron Wolf, died suddenly and tragically on Easter Sunday. He left behind a loving wife and six children, and colleagues and contributors to this magazine who admired him greatly.
Aaron worked for Chronicles for 20 years, and his journey reflects where the magazine and the conservative cultural movement it represents stands at this moment in time. Aaron came from Middle America, born into a city in the throes of industrial decay and a nation in cultural decline. His guiding principle during his editorship was that culture and values, rather than politics, will ultimately determine the fate of our civilization.
He was born into a family of Southerners who moved to Rockford, Ill., to work in the then-thriving city of factories. Both maternal and paternal grandparents left the poverty of Arkansas to make a better life in the land of Lincoln. Aaron’s parents maintained their bonds with the South, and kept the family’s history alive in Aaron’s mind.
The extended family was blue-collar. Ten uncles made their living in the Rockford factories. This background gave Aaron a built-in respect for the working class, which shaped his politics: he remained suspicious of free trade and unchecked immigration, because he knew how those things affected the people he knew and loved.
Aaron’s Arkansas roots brought hard work, strong family ties, and their Christian faith to the North. Although raised in a fundamentalist Baptist church and sent to Berean Christian School, Aaron eventually moved into confessional Lutheranism. Despite this switch, Aaron always spoke with great respect about the “Fundies,” as he called them. They, and he, had an ironclad respect for the Bible, of which he memorized many portions. The Fundies also encouraged men and women to fulfill their natural roles: the man as provider, protector, and leader of his house and the woman as nurturer, encourager, childbearer, and commander of her household army. The creation had an obvious order to Aaron: man, woman, parent, child, church, elder, and citizen, all under the Triune God.
However, Aaron could see problems in the Fundamentalist setting. Being an inquisitive fellow, he asked deep questions about theology. Even though he was often dismissed as being rebellious, Aaron realized that many of those he questioned had no answers. That reflected a cultural problem: people were no longer taught how to think. He concluded that he wasn’t going to get his answers in Fundamentalism.
As a result, he decided to study philosophy at Rockford College. It did not take students and professors long to realize Aaron had a very fine mind. Not only did he encounter the great thinkers, he also met his future wife, Lorrie, while attending. She wasn’t put off by his incessant ramblings on theology, philosophy, and history. They married soon after he graduated in 1995.
Graduate school seemed like the next logical step for a talented thinker like Aaron. He probably could have been accepted at Yale or Oxford. But he didn’t bother to apply. Instead, he enrolled at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., which was affordable and close to home. As it turned out, his studies there would provoke a dramatic confessional shift which would end up leading him to Chronicles.
In 1995, Aaron joined three other men to plant a church in Rockford called New Community Church. With this, Aaron was moving a step away from his Fundamentalist background to a broadly Evangelical church model which could attract new worshippers in Rockford. For this reason, Aaron was open to contemporary worship. Among other things, he played keyboards and guitar to accompany the praise songs. But his studies at Trinity began to move him in a decidedly different direction, and eventually into conflict with the leaders of New Community.
At Trinity, Professor Harold O. J. Brown introduced Aaron to the theology of the Reformation. He read Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin. He plunged into Martin Luther. “As he deeply searched God’s Word while studying the history of his Christian forefathers and great thinkers, God used the wisdom of the past to re-form Aaron’s theology,” Lorrie said. These changes in his viewpoints did not sit well with half of the team which started New Community.
Aaron’s friend Jeff Anderson, part of the ministry team at New Community, studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and was moving in the same Lutheran direction as Aaron. Anderson said that attending a Promise Keepers Conference in 1996 with Aaron became a watershed moment for both of them. As they watched seas of men waving their arms and weeping, Anderson said they both thought, “This is not for us.” Both came away convinced that the first step in cultural renewal was to find a church that better fit their view of the sacraments and style of worship.
Anderson found St. Paul Lutheran first. Aaron followed him. Aaron already had paleoconservative sensibilities due to his family experience in industrial Rockford. His new Lutheran faith provided a context for his politics. Theology was the foundation for Aaron’s thinking, Anderson said.
Aaron believed things started and ended with the family. The role of the man as husband and father was fundamental. From the family, concentric circles moved out to community and nation. “This starting point drove his conviction that politics could not fix America,” Anderson said. “That politics is downstream from culture remained a compass point for all his 20 years at Chronicles.”
Aaron put his theology into practice. He devoted himself to his wife and his household. Aaron and Lorrie had six children: Augustine, 19, Katherine, 17, Carl, 15, Nora, 13, Josephine, 11, and Peter, nine. All were baptized as infants and catechized in the Lutheran Church.
Aaron would rise in the morning, brew a pot of coffee and then sit at the kitchen table and talk, Lorrie said. He would talk with his wife and children for as long as they wanted. Lorrie called him a “joyful teacher.” Aaron and Lorrie also homeschooled their children. Aaron always took time to participate in the children’s lives, whether that be debate tournaments or homeschool projects. He may have had a heavy workload at Chronicles, but he never neglected his family.
At Trinity Seminary, Professor Brown introduced Aaron to Chronicles. Aaron started reading back issues and concluded it was the best-written magazine in America. At age 25, he visited the Rockford Institute where he met Chronicles editorial staff Chris Check, Tom Fleming, and Scott Richert. Check hired Aaron to be his administrative assistant to start. From those humble beginnings, he began contributing to the magazine and developed into the sophisticated and subtle writer that we came to love.
It is important to recognize how unconventional Aaron’s career path was.
I have mentored dozens of young conservative journalists from their undergraduate work into their first and second jobs. Most come from top-rated schools, write for the college newspaper and intern at media outlets in DC. They spend their DC summer internships hopping from one networking event to the next to build their conservative contacts. All are burning to return to DC after graduation. All think that journalism in DC or New York is going to make a difference. None would ever think of devoting their career to a monthly magazine published from a rustbelt town in Illinois.
Aaron broke that mold. He had no journalism experience and attended a relatively unknown school. He did not spend a summer in DC interning at the Leadership Institute or the Heritage Foundation. In fact, he had no internships at all. Instead of planting his flag in the nation’s capital after graduating, he went to seminary. He was already married with a child on the way when he started working at Chronicles.
By DC standards he was too old and too inexperienced to land an entry-level job. None of that deterred Aaron. He learned journalism as it is supposed to be learned: on the job. He had no interest in a “prestigious” job in Washington where he could hobnob with the mainstream conservative elite. He preferred to stay in Middle America, near his family and roots.
Most of my journalism mentees who come to Washington to “make a difference” discover this choice comes at a steep price. They may be pro-life and committed to defending the traditional family. But few can take even the first steps towards forming a family. Out of a hundred-odd mentees, only a couple dozen have married. The number with children can be counted on one hand. The cost of living in DC and New York makes it very hard to start a family on a journalist’s salary. Several of my mentees who worked exciting journalism jobs in New York City simply quit. They knew that if they wanted a normal life, i.e., marriage and family, they would never have one if they stayed journalists.
This is what makes Aaron remarkable: the unity of his faith and practice. He married, started a family, and found a place where he could write about the things that mattered, at Chronicles. In other words, he led a full life. Ironically, by consciously choosing to be a journalist in Middle America, Aaron made a long-term difference.
Aaron enjoyed a happy marriage and the blessing of six children. Anyone who dealt with Aaron, testified to the great joy that he exuded. But he also experienced the trials of Job.
His son, Carl, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Aaron had to be home each night to help lift Carl into bed.
His daughter, Katherine, developed juvenile diabetes. When I first met Aaron and Lorrie last February, they described how difficult it was to find the right endocrinologist to treat her. The doctor they eventually found required a drive to and from downtown Chicago for every appointment.
Five years ago, on his 40th birthday, Aaron went into shock and his heart stopped. The doctors revived him in the emergency room. But they never determined the cause of the emergency.
Four months after this hospitalization, the Wolf’s century-old, wood frame farmhouse burned to the ground. Aaron had risen early, smelled smoke, and got everyone out of the house. But the family lost all their worldly posessions.
“Through it all, Aaron never complained. He never cursed God,” said Scott Richert, Aaron’s friend and colleague at Chronicles for almost twenty years. “With every trial, his faith grew stronger, and he drew his wife and his children and all of us who knew him closer to Christ.”
Richert describes Aaron as a “gentle giant with a heart of gold.” Everyone who worked with Aaron said the same thing. He was friendly, conciliatory, and unwaveringly upbeat. Several contributors to the magazine noted Aaron would provide helpful editorial advice, even when he rejected a piece for the magazine. His colleagues at Chronicles who worked with him on a daily basis loved him.
When he arrived at Chronicles in 1999, the magazine needed those qualities.“The worst thing about the magazine at that time, he felt, was a vein of palpable bitterness,” Lorrie said. These, of course, were the years following the neoconservative conquest of establishment conservatism and Chronicles’ exile from the conservative mainstream. It was easy to think that the battle had been lost. “He sought to change the tone of the magazine into one that would inspire rather than enrage, realizing all the while that truth infuriates a wicked heart,” Lorrie said.
In addition to helping change the tone of the magazine, Aaron probably saved it financially. Scott Richert related a story that began with Aaron receiving in late 2006 an article submission from Egon Tausch entitled Gott Mit Uns. It described the history and subculture of German immigrants in Texas. Aaron saw this as a quintessential Chronicles article, a story about a local culture that illustrated universal truths. Although the senior editor was skeptical, Aaron was determined to publish it. After almost seven months of pestering, Aaron finally got his wish. The article appeared in the August 2007 edition.
A few weeks later, Hannelore Schwindt, a native German who had married a Texas German, sent a small donation to Chronicles. When she died a year and a half later, her will left the magazine several million dollars.
Aaron was not a regular contributor to Chronicles during the first years after he was hired. He did whatever needed to be done. In this way, he learned everything about publishing the magazine from the ground up.
When Chilton Williamson took over the editorship of Chronicles in 2014, Aaron’s column called “Heresies” appeared more frequently in the magazine. Aaron tried to use the space to write about culture in a magnanimous, uplifting, and optimistic way, Lorrie said.
Although he and I had exchanged plenty of emails, I first met Aaron in person in February of this year. The whole Charlemagne Institute team drove from Minneapolis to meet the Chronicles team in Rockford. We spent a day in meetings as well as a long dinner at a local restaurant. All of us were won over by Aaron’s articulate wit, his sense of humor, and the genuine affection that radiated out of him. We all came away with the conviction that this was the man we wanted to work with in the coming decades. He had the right tone and spirit, as well as the gifts. His life was a unity of faith and practice. He was a great role model whom we expected would become a close friend.
The prophet Hosea says that death is a blow. That is what we felt on Monday, April 22nd, when we received the news that Aaron had died. Perhaps staggered might be the better term. He leaves behind a widow and six children. But he also leaves us behind, with the prospect of carrying on without the aid of his joy and optimism.
Aaron always took the long-term view. And so we shall as well. We will continue Chronicles as Aaron would have wanted: happy warriors, defending Western Civilization and its Judeo-Christian values.