Walking to school is a lifelong educational experience for Chuck Wolfe
Interview by Rose Petersky
Every weekday from 1963 to 1967, Chuck Wolfe would pass through the Madison Park neighborhood from the Seattle Tennis Club to McGilvra Elementary school along with his childhood friend, Luke Hill. Each walk brought a “certain sense of adventure, achievement, and accomplishment” to the two boys, and they began to feel like their daily walks were an “integral part of school.”
At a time when the United States was embroiled with cheap gas and dreams of suburbia, a preschool-aged Wolfe grew up in bike-friendly Denmark. After moving to the United States, Wolfe’s father began teaching in the Urban Planning School at the University of Washington. The same mornings that Wolfe walked to school, his father would ride his bike; one of the few university professors, Wolfe recalls, who biked to work.
Every walk that Wolfe took was different due to the “interesting detours” that he and his friend managed to find through backroads and backyards. Yet one feature of the walk remained constant, the crossing of Madison Street. Because the street was wide and full of traffic, this was the most daunting part of the journey. Luckily, McGilvra Elementary school had resources on hand to help Wolfe, Hill, and other young people trying to get to school. A safety patrol team made up of older students, as well as a retired policeman, oversaw the crossing. Wolfe also credits his parents for teaching him how to behave around traffic. “Being careful was ingrained in us,” he said.
Wolfe points out that he was fortunate to have grown up in a family that walked and in an area where walking was possible. He lived close enough that he could realistically make the journey as a seven-year-old. Madison Street, for all of its heavy traffic, was still flanked by sidewalks, which is not the case for many suburban streets today. The walkability of a neighborhood, Wolfe stresses, is “all about location” and according to him, our current car culture is in part caused by how our streets can be unsafe for many people, especially children. “Unless people feel safe while walking, it’s not gonna happen,” he claims. “Safety is the elephant in the room.”
It is with safety in mind that Wolfe supports IWALK, the International Walk to School Day event; schools from around the world encourage as many of their students to walk to school as they can. He also supports Seattle School District’s new policy to have a Walking School Buses, groups of kids led by one or more adults who walk to school together at every K-8 grade school by 2013. Any way kids can get to school safely and in a group, is a plus to him. He believes children benefit from walking together. Wolfe believes the walks not only strengthened his friendship with his friend, Hill, but also allowed him to get to know other students, who occasionally accompanied them.
Even now, a half century later, Wolfe’s memories still resonate with him. He credits his experiences with inspiring his later career in Environmental and Land Use Law. Following in his footsteps, Wolfe’s children walked to their Mercer Island Elementary school.
Just about a year ago, Chuck Wolfe and Luke Hill walked through Madison Park, repeating the journey they had made hundreds of times as schoolchildren. Now, as adults, the two men were free to reflect on the many trips they had made, and how they had been changed, for the better, by walking.
Chuck Wolfe, 57, currently practices Environmental and Land Use Law in Seattle. Luke Hill is an Oversees Correspondent who lives in Bellevue. This piece is based on an interview conducted with Wolfe on August 1, 2012.