John Wold, a 1938 Union College graduate and the major benefactor of the school’s Peter Irving Wold Center, died in Casper, Wyoming, on Sunday. He was 100.
Wold, who founded Wold Oil Properties in 1950, grew up a Union College “campus kid” as his father, Peter Irving Wold, led Union’s physics department from 1920 to 1945. John Wold’s Union education started well before he eventually joined the ranks of undergraduates.
When Wold was about 10 years old, a Union botany professor asked him to take care of some bean plants the professor was cross-pollinating. Wold missed a couple of days of plant care and the plants died, Wold’s son Peter recalled.
“It was a meaningful lesson to Dad because all of these years later he still told that story,” Peter said Tuesday from the family’s business in Casper. “When you agree to take on a chore, you have to perform it and you have to perform it religiously.”
Wold discovered his love for geology in Schenectady. As a young kid, he would regularly stop by where the school discarded old geology specimens. Over time, he built up a geology collection of his own. He spent summers working at the GE research lab. As a Union student, he played on the hockey team.
John Wold is seated at far right in a team photo from his Union hockey playing days. Courtesy Union College.
He also met his wife, Jane, who was born and raised in Schenectady, while a student at Union. Wold was tasked with transporting a group of girls for a birthday, Peter said, and when Jane spotted him she made sure to get close.
“He grew up there, he met the love of his life there in Schenectady and he learned the love of geology,” Peter Wold said. “It was a time in his life where he grew and learned and cultivated some of the aspects that he carried on throughout his life.”
John and Jane Wold paid back the fond Union memories when they gave the college $20 million to help construct the 35,000-square-foot Wold Center in 2011. The donation, the largest in the college's history, also established endowed professorships in religious studies and geology. In 2016, Wold donated another $5 million to Union in memory of Jane, who died in 2015. He also served on the college’s board of trustees.
“He was the embodiment of what it means to be a loyal son or daughter of Union,” Union President Stephen Ainlay said in a statement. “In John’s case, he literally grew up on the Union campus and his commitment to the college knew no bounds.”
Wold with hockey players Spencer Foo '18, left, and Sebastien Gingras '16 during a campus visit in June 2016. Courtesy Union College.
Wold earned a master’s degree in geology from Cornell University and went to work for the military after school. He served in the Navy during World War II. In 1949, Wold landed in Casper and started his own oil and gas company; the business is now run by his sons, Peter and Jack. Wold was a Wyoming state lawmaker and served a single term as a Republican U.S. congressman from 1969-1971, the first geologist in Congress; he lost a pair of Senate bids.
His philanthropic work also supported programs at Cornell, Casper College and the University of Wyoming, and in the city of Casper. At a dedication ceremony for the Wold Family Arena in Casper, Union athletic director James McLaughlin and hockey coach Rick Bennett presented Wold with a ring to commemorate Union’s hockey national championship in 2014.
John and Jane Wold had three kids, Peter, Jack and daughter Priscilla Longfield; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. Peter said his son Joe likely scored some points with his grandfather when he chose to go to Union, where he also studied geology.
“One of dad’s most enjoyable experiences was going back to Union and seeing his grandson and visiting with him,” Peter Wold said.
The Wolds are planning a memorial service March 13 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Casper.