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The dwindling ranks of Team Mr. Wolfson

The Trib got more than it bargained for with the story of a homeless substitute teacher.

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A sympathetic newspaper story is an act of neither charity nor friendship. It's a transaction. When the upright guy in the story turns out to have feet of clay, a newspaper covers its butt. A friend hangs in there.

"I made no claim to being a flawless human being nor the reincarnation of Mother Teresa," says Henry Wolfson, 67, in a letter he wrote to the Reader after it became clear the Tribune wanted nothing more to do with him.

I sympathize with the Tribune—and with reporter Barbara Brotman—for wishing Wolfson had never darkened their door. But Wolfson's flaws make him no less interesting—just considerably more inconvenient.

About 15 months ago Wolfson read a piece by Brotman about unsung professions. He wrote her and suggested his own: substitute teaching. We make so little money, he said, that I'm in the process of being evicted from my apartment. Brotman got back to him, likely less interested in his profession's troubles than in his own.

Brotman's story on Wolfson ran last Labor Day. "For the last 19 years," she wrote, "he has worked regularly at McCracken Middle School in Skokie, where he is so highly regarded that teachers often called him at home to request he fill in for them. Only these days, they can't call him at home, because he doesn't have one. For the last four months, Wolfson has lived in a homeless shelter."

By newspapers' classic measure—reader response—the story was a triumph. Former students from McCracken and Niles North High School created a "Team Mr. Wolfson" and launched a fund drive on giveforward.com. "Let's help the best substitute we've ever had move out of a homeless shelter and into a place he can call home!" said the site. The $5,000 goal was soon raised to $20,000, then $40,000.

Unfortunately, the students weren't the only ones to respond. Somebody—Wolfson says Brotman told him it was a cousin in Texas—dropped a dime on him. Brotman was told that if Wolfson was a poor man he had no one to blame but himself. He'd inherited a lot of money and squandered it.

Brotman called Wolfson to get to the bottom of this accusation. Yes, it was true: the money had come from his parents' trust fund. On September 20 (17 days after the original story), the Trib came clean. The paper allowed in a clarification that the article "should have included the fact" that, according to court records, in 2007 Wolfson had received some $247,000 from the trust; by his own admission, "he lost two-thirds of that money betting on horses."

Investigative reporter Steve Mills followed up the next day with an article focusing on Team Mr. Wolfson. "It's heartbreaking news," said Adam Youhanna, one of the former students. "We figured he'd been working hard his whole life and had caught a bad break." Mills reported that the students had raised "close to $40,000" but would probably offer to refund the money. If any was unclaimed, "they may find a trustee to make sure nothing is gambled."

Wolfson wrote Brotman in distress. The students had stopped returning his phone calls, and he feared that in their eyes "I have gone from heroic sub worthy of worship and emulation, to horrific scoundrel—never to be spoken with again." For they were still just kids, he went on, "unschooled in the subtleties and nuances entailed in the human experience."

He lamented, "I never dreamed that by doing an interview with you about how our society values the work of substitute teachers, my own personal life would change one iota. However, I now find my lifelong character and reputation besmirched, my integrity questioned. . . . I do not deserve this."

"I have gone from heroic sub worthy of worship and emulation to horrific scoundrel."—Henry Wolfson

I'm guessing that at this point Brotman was less concerned with Wolfson's reputation than her own. The Tribune's "clarification" declared that her story "should have laid out those details about his finances." Then Mills reminded readers that "mention of the inheritance was in public court files that the Tribune did not consult before the column appeared." (As if feature writers routinely vet the legal history of every luckless guy whose story they tell.)

Wolfson continued to contact Brotman (who refused to speak with me about the matter) and various Tribune editors. In a letter last October he said he supposed he'd become "nary a blip on your radar screen," but wanted Brotman to know that the "unintended consequences" of her story were the "devastation to a life which was already in very difficult straits."

Anticipating "thousands of dollars in financial assistance from private donors," he'd asked Social Security to drop him from a program that paid him a monthly pittance and turned down a subsidized apartment that became available. But the bulk of those thousands never materialized.

In desperate and absurd denial of the ABCs of journalistic disclosure, he told Brotman that she had no more needed to inform her readers "that I squandered a large portion of an inheritance several years ago" than she did to tell them that when he was ten he used to read newspapers in the neighborhood drugstore without paying. "What does either have to do with how our society values, or devalues, substitute teachers?"

Today, Wolfson no longer subs at McCracken Middle School. He was "fired" on a pretext, he claims, but he's sure the real reason is his gambling losses. He read me a letter from the president of the Skokie board of education telling Wolfson there was nothing he could do about it. Wolfson also shared with me his reply slamming the board for failing "to exercise your moral as well as substantive authority to restore me to my role at McCracken."

He says he still does a little subbing at other schools, but he works far less than he used to: just a day or two a week at $115 a day. As for the nearly $20,000 that survived from the Team Mr. Wolfson fund, it's controlled by a trustee from a social service agency who doles out about $1,100 a month; he scornfully calls her "mommy." At least his living situation's OK: another subsidized apartment came along and he took it.

So that's the sad story of Henry Wolfson and the newspaper. What about Wolfson and an actual friend?

Jim Sweeney is a retired Niles North English teacher who now lives in Florida. He told me a story. Just before the school year began in 2000, Sweeney's wife had a stroke. "It was the first time in my 37 years teaching that I wasn't in school the first day. I called Henry. I said, 'I don't know what to tell you. I have everything in my head, nothing's written down.' He says, 'I'll take care of everything.' And he did. I was probably out a week before I got in."

In other words, what Brotman's original article said about Wolfson was true: he was an exceptional substitute other teachers trusted completely. When Sweeney found out about the Team Mr. Wolfson fund, he chipped in $1,000. When news broke about Wolfson's problem with the ponies, he let Wolfson know he didn't want a penny back.

"I try as much as I can not to let somebody's human failings cloud my view of him," says Sweeney. "If he needed money this minute, I'd send him more."

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