The year 1919 brought several historic events in United States history. Prohibition was ratified by three-fourths of the United States, the League of Nations was founded, and it was the year of the 45th Kentucky Derby. Woodrow Wilson was halfway through serving his second term as president, Congress approved the 19th Amendment and Oregon was the first state to put a tax on gasoline. It was also the year former U.S. Rep. and Civil Air Patrol Col. Lester Wolff was born.
Born Jan. 4 in New York City, New York, Wolff attended college at New York University where he received his degree in marketing. Wolff knew he wanted to join the service, but he didn’t realize he’d run into an issue that would ultimately lead him to CAP.
“I had been rejected for service in the draft,” he said. “I volunteered for some other services, but I had asthma, and they rejected me.”
Wolff said he had a friend in CAP, so he decided to join.
His service began during World War II as a squadron commander and subchaser for the New York Wing. During the war, CAP performed search and rescue, parachute rescue and natural disaster support as it patrolled by air. Wolff was responsible for hunting enemy submarines off the Atlantic Coast. His duties continued throughout the war, especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
With CAP initiating in 1941, it was still viewed as a new organization several years after its inception. Wolff said he’s happy with how far CAP has come since the beginning.
“I think that the greatest memory was the fact that CAP was accepted,” he said. “We were just a bunch of ragtag guys, as we were flying around without very much direction.”
Almost 20 years after the ending of World War II, Wolff wanted to do more for CAP and wanted the organization to receive the recognition it deserved. In 1963, Wolff decided to run for Congress, and in 1964, he won the election. He would go on to serve eight terms before ultimately losing re-election in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president.
As of today, Wolff is the oldest living former member of Congress.
John Swain is a longtime CAP member and also serves as the organization’s director of government relations. He met Wolff in 1964 when Swain was a teenager in high school. Wolff was conducting a press conference to create legislation for a national aviation academy much like the Air Force Academy. Swain was there in uniform when Wolff noticed him. Wolff asked Swain if he would come on stage and be part of the press conference, and Swain agreed.
“While he was talking about legislation to create the national academy, he pointed me out and said, ‘This young man is an example of the kind of young people we’d like to go to the academy,’ ” Swain said.
He said the two have been friends ever since, and in 1973, Wolff contacted him after Wolff began commanding CAP’s Congressional Squadron on Capitol Hill.
“It’s made up of members of Congress,” Swain said. “He needed somebody to help him with that, so he called up, and that’s when I joined him to work with the squadron.”
Both Wolff and Swain believed there should be more recognition for CAP for those who served during World War II. In 2010, Swain coordinated a bill for CAP with the congressional effort of Wolff, then-Sen. Tom Harkin and others. Swain spent four years searching for co-sponsors and support, and in 2014, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to honor CAP members who served during the war.
“Our World War II members had been promised war-time benefits, military service benefits that never occurred,” Swain said. “Back in 2010, we thought this was our last opportunity to do something for them."
For the ceremony, Wolff was asked to accept the medal in honor of the hard work and sacrifices he and many others contributed during the war. With the attendance of political leaders such as John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, Wolff accepted the medal and gave a speech to represent CAP.
“I thought that was great,” he said. “I thought finally we did get that recognition. I think it was really truly one of the great experiences of my life.”
Over the years, Wolff has had the opportunity to evaluate strategies and tactics CAP has used since the beginning. He continues to brainstorm ideas on how he thinks the organization can continue to improve.
“I think that I’d like to see CAP get involved in handling drones, because I think that’s a future role CAP could take on,” he said. “I think that it would be a great step forward.”
Wolff said CAP has made one of the biggest impacts on his life.
“CAP is a great organization,” Wolff said. “I think it epitomizes the spirit that our country is founded upon of citizen participation in the security of our country.”