JOB: Technically, Al Wolfe's job title is Assembly Hall technician. But in reality, he has been the building electrician at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts since 1981. He is responsible for everything there that has wires, he says, and he has crawled into every nook and cranny of the place to make installations and repairs.
FAMILY: He and his wife, Lynda, have four children and are expecting their first grandchild in June. The couple lives on the family farm south of St. Joseph.
What does your job require?
We have four theaters here and we're responsible for the safe operation of the electrical part. We take care of the house lights. The lighting department takes care of the instruments used for theatrical performances, but I'm responsible for the rest of it. We have 3 acres of lobby upstairs and hundreds and hundreds of light fixtures. Also we have literally thousands of fluorescent fixtures around here and they have to be maintained. We have two commercial kitchens, a TV studio, dozens of classrooms and offices, a large shop area and many other areas that use electricity. We also maintain the intercoms, the two-way radio systems and much of the audio-visual equipment. We also have installed and maintained the computer-controlled dimming systems in our four theaters.
How big is Krannert Center?
It takes up four city blocks. There are five levels open to the public but there are actually 13 levels of the building.
What kinds of interesting things have you done at work?
Well, we have a ghost in the Great Hall. Or it seems that way. What happens is that some of the lights will just flash a little bit and nobody knows why. We've been trying to figure this out for 15 years or so. It may not happen for six months. Last weekend it happened twice. So far we haven't been able to find out what it is.
What's one of the best parts of your job?
Working with the students. On a daily basis they come and ask questions about things they're trying to do on the stage or one of their projects, and sometimes it's 'My stereo's broke. How can I fix my stereo?' I help teach some of the lighting classes too. Usually a day or two every semester in some of the lighting classes we'll talk about electrical safety, the national electrical code as it applies to theater and basic electronics.
What's the worst part of being an electrician at Krannert?
Thirty years worth of dirt. Crawling around places that people don't usually go into, like the ceiling up in the lobby, tunnels, that sort of thing. Not only is it dirty, but if you misstep you'll fall through and that's not good. I've never done it and I don't want to. I did get caught one time in a narrow space and a little claustrophobia set in and I finally decided it wasn't going to get any better, so I didn't panic and I was able to wiggle out of it. But it wasn't fun.
There are some scary times. Like going 100 feet in the air and working up on the grid with not a whole lot below us. We have some external lighting instruments on the side of the Great Hall that are 40 feet up in the air and we have to crawl down over the side with a special ladder. Not everybody can do that.
I've heard you also have a special interest in weather watching. What do you do?
I've been a storm spotter volunteer for several years. We have a few people around [Krannert] also trained as storm spotters. We have quite an obligation when we have a performance going on and there's a tornado forecast or a severe weather forecast.
As storm spotters, we're involved with ESDA [Emergency Services Disaster Agency] and the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. And when storms are threatening, we go out and watch the clouds, usually over in the western or southwestern part of the county.
Do you do this because of your own interests or as part of your job with Krannert?
Basically it's my own interest. Most of my involvement with this at Krannert has been during the day when the biggest concern has been with students in classes and the faculty and staff as they go about their work. When we get a weather alarm, we can consult with the staff who make the decisions on how to respond.
Have performances ever been stopped because of weather?
Yes, but not often. I think I can only remember once or twice when that has happened. The spaces inside the theaters are probably very safe. The lobby, on the other hand, has lots of glass and isn't where I would want to be in a tornado.
Do you frequently see tornadoes?
Well, I've been a storm spotter for 30-some years and I've only seen one: the Ogden tornado in 1996.
What do you do when you're not working?
I'm active in our church, the Windsor Road Church of Christ. I'm on the missions committee and the worship committee. And every couple years I'll try to get away for a couple weeks and help build a church somewhere or a church camp or something like that.
I'm currently chairman of the board of Illini Children's Christian Home Ministries out at St. Joseph. I've been active in amateur radio for 31 years. And I'm a pilot. I don't fly anymore because I can't afford it, but I still have my license.
You grew up near St. Joseph. Did you go to the UI after high school?
Not directly. I attended Rose Polytech (now Rose Hulman) in Terre Haute for a year, then went to summer school here in '63. I also attended Eastern Illinois University and Lincoln Christian College. Somewhere in there we spent eight years in the U.S. Air Force and seven years in commercial broadcast engineering.
My folks were both alumni. My father graduated from the UI in '40 and my mother in '42.
Are you glad you came to work at the UI back in 1981?
I thank God every day for the privilege of working here at the university and at Krannert Center in particular.
I've never seen students more dedicated to what they're doing than the students in theater and the other arts. They're here because they really want to be and not because mom and dad say this is what they have to do.
My door's almost always open down there, and I guess I have rapport with some of these kids. They come in and talk about things -- their concerns -- and I try to be a good listener. And that keeps me young.