Bill Wolff, The Full-Time Volunteer

Before he retired in 2004, Bill Wolff’s schedule was permanently full. He was “over-occupied” with his job as a high school gym teacher, and on nights and weekends when he wasn’t teaching, he was coaching the school’s swim team.

Being so accustomed to these packed days, the prospect of having empty time to fill during retirement was daunting.

“I’m not a golfer. I don’t play bridge. I can’t imagine sitting there waiting for the mail to be delivered,” he said.

Wolff knew he wanted to spend more time outside and stay social during his retirement, but he also wanted to do something that felt purposeful. 

“I am a task-oriented guy, and I need someone to give me a job,” he said. 

So when Wolff and his wife retired and moved from Illinois to Fish Creek, he gravitated toward The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor. He had volunteered there a bit during past vacations to Door County, but at that point, he had more time to give.

“I kind of threw myself at The Ridges and said, ‘Give me things to do,’” Wolff said.

So they did. 

First, he started working with the Wednesday Crew, a group of volunteers that spends Wednesday mornings helping Ridges staff maintain the sanctuary.

Initially, the crew’s focus was on chores such as shoveling and trail maintenance, but after Wolff joined, he pushed the crew toward working on more infrastructural changes that included building boardwalks, cutting down trees and forging new trails.

After he’d spent a while doing work with the Wednesday Crew, Wolff wanted more involvement at The Ridges. The staff recognized his love of talking to people and recommended he start leading guided hikes. 

Wolff agreed – but there was only one catch: “I didn’t know a tree from a dandelion,” he said.

He did know how to fix his lack of knowledge, however: He followed another volunteer hike leader, Jane Whitney. 

“I walked around with her for months, and I stole all her material,” Wolff said. “Now I sound like a real knowledgeable guy.”

The Ridges’ assistant director, Katie Krouse, gave him more credit than he afforded himself in regard to his guided hikes. 

“When people go out on a guided hike with Bill, so many of them come back and become members afterward,” Krouse said. “There are so many people who are involved in The Ridges because of Bill.”

That’s one of Wolff’s favorite parts of volunteering. Usually, he said, his guided hikes attract between six and 12 people, but there’s almost always one person who’s especially invested in the hike and wants to absorb all the information he can offer. A few hikers have even returned to The Ridges years after their first hike with Wolff and thanked him.

Bill Wolff leads a guided hike. Photo courtesy of The Ridges Sanctuary.

“Some people say, ‘That little walk we took made me more conscious of what I could do where I live,’” he said.

One of those people was Addie Broyles, a Texas freelancer who came to Door County on a work trip. A hike that Wolff guided created Broyles’ first impression of the peninsula, and although the information he shared during the walk was “hyper-regional,” his enthusiasm made it easy for Broyles to apply his musings to her home base in Texas.

“His passion for the environment really shines through,” Broyles said. “Environmental issues can be so polarizing, and I’m sure he gives tours to people with all political persuasions, but he does a great job of making the information universal.” 

Eventually, Wolff decided he wanted even more involvement, so he started working as a “meet-and-greeter” at the sanctuary’s front desk, then joined The Ridges’ board, on which he’s serving his second three-year term.

“I thought if I’m going to spend every day here, I might as well be part of the board,” Wolff said.

With all of these commitments, he finds himself at The Ridges nearly every day: greeting people at the front desk on Mondays and Thursdays, guiding hikes on Tuesdays and Fridays, and of course, working on the Wednesday Crew on Wednesdays. On weekends, he often helps out with press tours and special events.

“It’s pretty much a full-time job,” Wolff said. “I have to be busy. If I wasn’t being occupied, I would be sitting at home staring out the window. I just feel really blessed that I have a place to go to where I feel like I’m doing something that’s significant.” 

And the staff members are happy to have his help. According to Krouse, Wolff’s passion for The Ridges is infectious – for staff members as well as visitors. 

Krouse joined The Ridges in 2015, and Wolff was one of the first volunteers with whom she worked. That interaction made a major impact on her investment in The Ridges’ mission.

“He was so excited about The Ridges, and it really kick-started me into feeling that passion for the sanctuary,” she said. 

Wolff has spent 20 years volunteering at The Ridges – and the 82-year-old isn’t planning to stop anytime soon. 

“I’m in good shape,” he said. “I can still walk faster than anybody in my hiking groups, no matter how old they are. I’ll stay [at The Ridges] as long as they’ll have me and I have something to give.”

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