A man of foresight and goodwill

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

“Most people were not interested in the things I was, and I wasn’t interested in sports. So I developed my own interests.”

At about 11 years old, Rolfe Blaess bought a wire recorder from his aunt for $35. He taught himself how to record off the radio and speak into the microphone. “Rewinding the wire was so noisy my mom called it ‘the corn sheller upstairs,’” he said. Later with tape recorders he exchanged audio tapes with friends throughout the world. “I paid $50 for a mic and I still use it today,” Rolfe said. He advanced to bigger and better recorders and was soon playing LPs and 45s for youth center dances in the gym of the armory (now the Elks) on Friday nights. By the time he was a sophomore, he was running the sound system for high school assemblies.

In his eighth decade, Rolfe is still going strong — traveling, swimming, adapting easily to digital and video — and recording a Christmas album each year for 175 friends around the world. His annual Christmas tape is a product of love. “I started making Christmas cassettes for friends years ago, and they told me they kept them to playa gain, so I thought, well I can make a different tape (now CD) each year. I try hard never to repeat a song.”

This all may sound astonishing, but the many albums are ordinary facts of life for a man with many friends in the U.S. and who remains in touch with every friend he’s ever made abroad, some of whom he’s known since 1957, the year he graduated from high school.

Rolfe started traveling when he was in the service in Germany, and before he was out of his twenties he had quite a few highlights marked in his travel resume. “I went into the military in 1962 and was sent overseas,” he said. “And on $78 to $123 a month Army pay, I saw a lot — Monaco, Austria, Switzerland, Holland; and then in Italy I was in Florence, Naples, Pisa and on the Isle of Capri. The places in Germany, of course . . . Berlin was one of the most swinging cities; at Checkpoint Charlie we entered East Germany. They tailed us wherever we went. We could leave the car, but they watched our car, not us. JFK was there about two weeks after I was.”

Rolfe never got over the love of touring, and since he’s traveled to just about any country you can name — Luxemburg and Australia, Fiji and Russia, Turkey and Japan, and nearly all the places in between — Rolfe, a friendly man, has plenty of friends to count on. “I have friends in Norway, in Canada, all around, finding new songs for me,” he said.

Explaining his travel exploits, many of which were with his traveling guru Jane Sorenson, Rolfe said, “It gives you such a different perspective on life. I’ve never regretted the money I’ve spent on travel — the broadening view you get of life and the people you get to meet.” His world preferences? “New Zealand is definitely one of my favorites. Ireland. Russia on a Viking River Boat cruise.”

After graduation from Jefferson high School, Rolfe worked for his dad at the family emporium, Blaess Shoe store. It started out at 110 S Wilson and eventually was located on the west side next to Ben Franklin. When he returned from his tour of duty, he joined his dad on the square. “Dad taught me first how to be an employee and then how to be an employer,” he said. “After I took it over, I always had such good help — Evelyn Crouse and Betty Wolfe — that I could do things in the community with the Chamber of Commerce, the Lions Club, town events; as well as travel. There was flexibility for all of us — both for them, and for me.”

Rolfe’s commitment to Jefferson is lifelong and full of goodwill. “I love the size of Jefferson” he said. “I love that I’ve been here all my life, that I know people and their relationships, their history, their parents. When I walk down the street they know me and I know them. I like the feeling of community and the businesses, the closeness of friends that you make for life.”

Besides his friendliness and openness that meet everyone with the same wide open welcoming smile, Rolfe has contributed much of historic import to his beloved home town. Soon after he returned from his stint in Germany, “the big hole in the ground” as Rolfe called the excavation for the Mahanay tower, was being photographed by Rolfe on a regular basis, from the beginning and as the tower rose above the courthouse. He recorded nationally known Jefferson musician Jack Oatts and his jazz fests from 1968 to 1976, when Oatts brought top talent like Clark Terry, Arnie Lawrence and Bill Chase to town.

In 1974 at the instigation of Dr. J.K. Johnson, Rolfe taped 80 minutes of a few old timers who chauffeured for Floyd and Dora Mahanay. Because of a bad back, Mahanay could not drive, so his friends obliged. The stories from the likes of Virgil Buckmiller, Francis Cudahy, Doug Shriver and Wayne Winey create a fascinating and humorous reminiscence worth hearing. According to Rolfe, there are CD copies at the Jefferson Public Library, the Historical Society and the Mahanay tower.

As a charter member of Trinity Lutheran in Jefferson, Rolfe has accomplished the remarkable honor of being one of the oldest originals in that congregation. Now, in the winter months, he manages all the sound for three services each weekend in his snowbird church in Arizona.

My favorite value-added Rolfe contribution is his recording of old recordings owned by people who want to preserve them. One was a 1948 four-series radio recording Dizzy Dean. He recorded for me all my favorite poems to give to my grandchildren. He’s a preservationist, to our delight and good luck.

Merry Christmas, Rolfe; and to all of you.

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