National News

Ronald Wolk, Innovator in Covering Education News, Dies at 86

Posted May 7, 2018 6:13 p.m. EDT

Ronald A. Wolk, a steelworker’s son who almost skipped college but continued with his education to become a national spokesman for school reform and a founder of two leading academic weekly newspapers, died April 28 in East Sandwich, Massachusetts. He was 86.

The cause was congestive heart failure and kidney failure, his daughter Suzanne Wolk said.

A report written by Wolk in the early 1960s citing a need for better communications among college and university administrators led to the founding in 1966 of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In 1981, Wolk established a pre-college version of the Chronicle, Education Week, with Martha K. Matzke, a fellow journalist. He was its first publisher and editor-in-chief. She was later named executive editor.

Both publications later developed websites.

Wolk had earlier served as a special assistant to Milton S. Eisenhower, the brother of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, when Milton Eisenhower was president of Johns Hopkins University. Wolk was also Eisenhower’s assistant when he was named by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve as chairman of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, established after urban riots in 1968.

“He embraced the progressive ideal that schools could trust kids to grapple with big issues and figure out the answers for themselves,” Gregory M. Chronister, a former executive editor of Education Week, said in an email. “His disillusionment with get-tough policies — more standards and tests and discipline — was apparent in his later years.”

Ronald Alfred Wolk was born Feb. 28, 1932, in Pittsburgh to Alfred Wolk and Anna (Gribble) Wolk, who worked cleaning Pullman railroad cars and in an olive-canning factory.

He had no college plans until his last day of high school, when an English teacher pulled him aside, handed him an application to her alma mater, Westminster College, and paid the $5 application fee.

He graduated from Westminster, a college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church college in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English in 1954. He received a master’s in journalism from Syracuse University.

In addition to his daughter Suzanne, Wolk is survived by his wife, Mimi McConnell, from whom he was separated; two other daughters, Lauren and Cally Wolk; three grandchildren; and a sister, Carol Westphal.

Wolk was on leave from his job as editor of the Johns Hopkins alumni bulletin in 1962 when, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, he wrote a report for the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education recommending a “communications vehicle for college and university trustees.”

As a result, The Chronicle of Higher Education was founded by Editorial Projects in Education, which sold the publication to its editors in 1978. Wolk then became president of that organization. He and Matzke, who was the organization’s vice president, began Education Week in 1981.

Education Week, which covered school news below the college level, scored an exclusive in its first issue with details of President Ronald Reagan’s plans to dismantle the Department of Education and deliver on his campaign promises to return control of schools to states and localities — a promise he later abandoned.

“Ron had the guts to reject the conventional cultural wisdom of that day — when political conservatives were pressing the ‘K-12 education is a strictly local matter’ argument,” Matzke recalled in an email, “and most of the coverage of education nationally was focused, as it had been more or less since the GI Bill, on higher education.”

In 1997, Wolk retired to Rhode Island, where in the 1970s he was vice president for university relations at Brown University.