Former Rep. Howard Wolpe (second from right) earned a doctorate in African studies and was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa.
Those who worked with former Rep. Howard Wolpe agree: The Michigan Democrat did serious work, but he never took himself too seriously.
Wolpe died Tuesday at his home in Saugatuck, Mich. He was 71.
While he served in Congress, Wolpe sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee and chaired that panel's Subcommittee on Africa. He wrote legislation against apartheid in South Africa and, after President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill, he got Congress to override the veto.
But he was also the man who would lean back in a chair and fall over during a committee hearing, only to sit right back up, laughing at himself.
"He had a reputation as someone with a quick wit and a self-deprecating humor. ... But he also had this commitment to social justice," said Keith Laughlin, president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and a former chief of staff to Wolpe.
He represented Michigan's 3rd district for seven terms after he was elected in 1978. After redistricting divided his district into four sections, he decided not to run for re-election in 1992.
Wolpe was born Nov. 3, 1939, in Los Angeles. He spent his childhood in California before attending Reed College in Portland, Ore.
He then received a doctorate in African studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Soon after, he moved to Kalamazoo, the area he would end up representing in Congress, to teach political science at Western Michigan University.
It was in Michigan where he got his start in politics. He ran for and was elected to the Kalamazoo City Council in 1968.
During this election, he met 16-year-old Jim Margolis. Margolis saw a guy who not only wore a powder blue leisure suit with green stitching ("That wasn't OK, even back then," Margolis said with a laugh), but someone who saw the fundamental goodness in people.
"He was in it for the right reasons," said Margolis, who later served as Wolpe's chief of staff and is now a political consultant in Washington, D.C.
After serving for four years on the city council, he was elected to the Michigan state Legislature in 1972. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1976, but this didn't deter him from trying again in 1978. That time, he won and headed to Washington.
Wolpe was eager to put his African studies background to use in Congress, something senior Members discouraged him from since he was from a heavily Republican district.
"You didn't go to the Foreign Affairs Committee if you were in a tough district," Margolis said. "You went for Commerce. But Howard would respond, 'I guess it's kind of novel to have somebody who knows something about the topic on the committee.'"