scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Former Cambridge mayor Alice Wolf, an advocate for refugees and LGBTQ equality, dies at 89

Then a state representative, Alice Wolf, center, was surrounded by supporters in 1998. Ms. Wolf served Cambridge for nearly 35 years as a School Committee member, councilor, mayor, and state representative.Mark Wilson/Globe Staff//file

Already legendary for helping craft a plan to desegregate city schools and introducing a groundbreaking human rights ordinance that covered sexual orientation, Alice Wolf drew from personal experience in 1985 while spearheading efforts to make Cambridge a sanctuary city that would not cooperate with federal authorities who tried to deport Central American refugees.

“I came to this country as a refugee,” Ms. Wolf, then a city councilor, said at a City Council meeting before the measure was adopted in a 5-4 vote.

When she was a young girl, Nazis had forced her and other Jews to wear yellow stars, before her family escaped Austria in 1938. “Without asylum, I would be dead,” she said that April evening. “Several members of my family did not make it.”


With a quietly fierce dedication to preserving the rights of anyone marginalized by society, she served Cambridge for nearly 35 years as a School Committee member, councilor, mayor, and state representative. Ms. Wolf died Thursday in her Cambridge home. She was 89 and had been diagnosed with leukemia.

As state representative in 2001, Ms. Wolf interacted with children at a public housing summer camp run by Harvard students in Cambridge.BOHN, John GLOBE STAFF

Several years after helping make Cambridge safer for refugees, she introduced local domestic partnership legislation — adopted in 1992 in a 5-4 vote — that allowed LGBTQ couples to receive benefits, if one person was a city employee.

Opposite-sex couples also could register, but Cambridge’s first-in-the-state legislation to extend benefits to same-sex relationships was so pioneering that many in the LGBTQ dubbed Ms. Wolf an “honorary lesbian,” and what is now the state LGBTQ Bar Association honored her with a community service award.

“I don’t look for unpopular causes to champion,” Ms. Wolf insisted in a 1993 Globe interview, when she was serving her final council term.

Yet over and over, from integrating city schools at the outset of her years in office to trying to update the Massachusetts bottle return law as a state legislator, Ms. Wolf advocated on behalf of issues and people who faced considerable opposition or discrimination.


In a 2010 interview with Boston magazine, she described herself as “the most lefty Democrat.”

“For Alice, seeing the dignity of another human being wasn’t a process, it was something that was always intuitive,” said state Representative Marjorie Decker, a Democrat who succeeded Ms. Wolf in the House.

“She modeled what’s possible in terms of caring about the well-being of others and standing up and translating that into better policies,” said Decker, who was a teenage activist when she first worked alongside Ms. Wolf, and later managed her mentor’s campaigns.

For Ms. Wolf, supporting the human rights of others was work that never ended. Even after a vote turned policy into reality, she knew further efforts were needed to ensure everyone was treated with dignity.

“We’re looking for better ways of bringing kids together within the high school,” she told the Globe in 1978, after Cambridge’s schools integration plan had become a model for other communities. “They’re there physically, but does that really mean the school’s integrated?”

By the time she was elected in 1996 to serve in the Legislature, Ms. Wolf had an established record of bridging divides, including in the sometimes heated Cambridge campaigns between progressive and more moderate Democrats.

“The important thing to remember is that Alice Wolf is who she is,” Katherine Triantafillou, then a Cambridge city councilor, told the Globe in 1996, when Ms. Wolf won the Democratic primary for a House seat en route to a general election victory.


“She has demonstrated over a long period of time that she has an amazing ability to bring people together in extraordinary ways,” Triantafillou said. “She has a history of progressive politics.”

An only child, Alice Koerner was born in Vienna on Dec. 24, 1933, and spent her early years there amid the Nazis’ rise to power.

Years later, as an elected official, she saw society’s longtime refusal to allow same-sex couples to marry as part of a long, world history of discrimination against all marginalized groups.

“You should know what can happen in the day-to-day life of a family when there is gross discrimination. I was a little kid, and my parents could not take me to the local playground because we had to wear a yellow star because we were a Jewish family,” Ms. Wolf said in the State House in February 2004 as lawmakers debated legislation in response to the state Supreme Judicial Court ruling requiring Massachusetts to recognize same-sex marriages.

“Others wore other colored stars. There were gays and lesbians, Catholics, and gypsies. We could not go to the neighborhood park,” she said, adding that “the Nazis invaded and our whole community was at risk.”

In 1938, her family left Austria and came to the United States, settling in Brighton, and her parents, Renee Engel Koerner and Fritz Koerner, worked for a customs brokerage office.


Ms. Wolf graduated from what was then Girls’ Latin, and then received a bachelor’s degree from Simmons College in 1955. She graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School with a master’s in public administration in 1978.

In December 1949, she met Bob Wolf, a Harvard University student, and they were a couple since their first date, at a Brattle Theatre play. They married two weeks after she graduated from Simmons.

“I’m very grateful that we found each other,” he said.

She was a researcher at Lincoln Laboratory and worked at technical companies before staying home when the couple’s two sons were young.

Alice Wolf was a researcher at MIT Lincoln Laboratory after college. MIT Lincoln Laboratory

Elected to the School Committee in 1973, Ms. Wolf served for eight years. She was elected to the City Council in 1983 and stayed for a decade, including 1990-91 as mayor, and served 16 years as a state representative, until 2013.

“She spent a lot of time in her life trying to make things better for a lot of people, but she never forgot her family, and she cared for her family,” said her husband, who worked in administration for Polaroid.

Their son Eric of Arlington, Va., said Ms. Wolf “had an enormously clear sense of right and wrong. She had a moral compass that guided her political work and made her compassionate toward immigrants, because she had been one.”

Eric added that his “parents were amazing early examples of a marriage of equals. When we were growing up, mom was out running around doing city things. My dad was a great example of coming home and making dinner and doing homework with us.”


Ms. Wolf “was both strongly at home and strongly out in the world,” Eric said, “and my dad was really an enabler of that.”

In addition to her husband and son, Ms. Wolf leaves her other son, Adam, of South Portland, Maine; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A funeral service for family and friends will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday in Story Chapel in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Shiva will be observed at the family home Wednesday and Thursday, beginning at 4 p.m., and a public celebration of Ms. Wolf’s life will be announced.

In her work as a local and state elected official, Ms. Wolf “was tenacious, she was persistent, but she also was strategic,” Decker said. “She cared about outcomes. It wasn’t just about being right. It was, ‘How do I navigate the resistance and the way others feel and bring them along?’”

Yet in the end, even if only by a 5-4 vote, Ms. Wolf usually prevailed and never compromised her principles.

“I’m fairly stubborn,” she said with a smile in the 1993 Globe interview, “but because I’m quieter, I can get what I want without having to give anything up.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at