2011 Distinguished Alumna: Harriet Holan Wolfe ’61

While most Hathaway Brown alumnae embrace the motto “We learn not for school, but for life,” Harriet Holan Wolfe ’61 is a living embodiment of that ideal.

Harriet grew up in Rocky River, about 45 minutes west of HB’s campus. Nonetheless, at the urging of a neighbor who was an HB alumna and noted Harriet’s academic ability, her family decided to send her to the school in Shaker Heights when she was in eighth grade. Fearing the daily commute would be too taxing, they moved her into the dormitory at the same time. Harriet spent the next five years honing the skills of an independent, self-sufficient young woman, taking on responsibilities that set a lifelong course of leadership and academic adventure.

Although it was difficult to be away from home, Harriet took great joy in the process of learning. HB teachers helped her to see the world – and her place in it – in new and interesting ways. She was especially grateful for the mentoring by Miss Bruce and Miss Jensen, and she was a proud recipient of many yellow “smiley notes” from Miss Coburn. Those little paper affirmations and her admiration for Miss Coburn figured heavily into Harriet’s choice to attend Smith College upon her HB graduation.

Harriet excelled in the classroom, and she thoroughly enjoyed immersing herself in the traditional subjects during the school day. But she was equally influenced by her extracurricular activities. She credits playing fullback on the varsity field hockey team with laying the foundation for her devotion to physical fitness.  She also sang in the chorus, took piano lessons, served on Student Council, and organized and participated in a host of volunteer efforts. HB’s Upper School not only nourished Harriet’s intellectual curiosity, but also heightened her commitment to social justice. She was highly respected by her teachers and classmates alike, and was voted Honor Girl during her senior year – the first West Sider to be so honored. “My HB experience opened so many doors and encouraged me to be all I could be,” Harriet says.

At Smith, Harriet started with pre-med but switched to German as a language still useful in science as well as a vehicle to see the world.  During her junior year, she joined the first Smith Junior Year Abroad Program in Hamburg.  When she returned to the United States, she finished her undergraduate degree and enrolled in a graduate program in Germanic Languages and Literature at Columbia University where she received a master’s degree. Before she began working on her doctorate, she spent a year teaching German at a junior college in Paducah, Ky. In the evenings, she also taught remedial algebra to adults who wanted to resume their education.  She says,“I found I loved teaching people who really wanted to learn; solving for ‘x’ was the best part of the year.”

The following year, she moved to the West Coast and into a Ph.D. program at the University of California Berkeley.  Although she enjoyed studying Germanic languages and literature, her experience teaching in Paducah had encouraged her to realize that being a German professor wasn’t her calling.

Harriet decided to find a way to fulfill her original life plan of becoming a physician. In a time when there were not that many female doctors, Harriet had the good fortune as a child to be a patient of Dr. Mildred Bowen, a family practitioner who treated a number of her relatives, including her parents and grandparents. “For me, Dr. Bowen was a model of a woman who was very well educated and also very compassionate.  She was able to treat and relate to all of us as individuals and as members of a family,” Harriet says. “I realized I was eager to work directly with people just as she had with us.”

Harriet left the graduate program in German to become a post-baccalaureate pre-med student at Berkeley.  One of her first adventures was the realization that zoology, which had focused on the dissection of frogs at Smith, now focused on DNA and RNA.  Science had become a whole new world.  She came back to Cleveland as a student at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine, with thoughts of eventually becoming an internist. Before beginning medical school, she spent a year working as a research assistant with highly-regarded pediatricians John Kennell and Marshall Klaus, helping them assess mother-infant bonding among clinic patients at University Hospitals.  As a medical student, she was exposed to each medical discipline and determined that psychiatry was the field that most appealed to her. “I found myself fascinated by how people get to be who they are, what they feel about their lives and how behavior does and does not reflect their inner lives,”she says.  “I liked thinking in an inclusive way – looking at the whole person.”

Her next stop was Yale University, where she completed her psychiatry residency and returned to her love of teaching, serving as a faculty member for six years. In 1985, she moved to San Francisco and became an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCSF Medical School, a position she still holds today. Three years later, she met her husband, child analyst Gil Kliman, M.D. The two married in 1990 and adopted their daughter, Becky, a “fiery redhead” who is the “light of” their lives when she was a newborn in 1992.

As she balanced career and motherhood, Harriet continued her education, specializing in psychoanalysis. She graduated from analytic training at the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis in 1994 and she is currently a Training and Supervising Analyst there.  She has held multiple leadership positions locally and nationally in her specialty, working in areas ranging from strategic planning to assessment of teaching methods and progress in learning.

It took about 15 years, coursework at six different colleges and universities, relocating between two countries and five U.S. states, but it all seemed, in the end, preparation for Harriet to arrive at the place she had wanted to be since she was a young girl: in private medical practice – with the added satisfaction of teaching and supervising a wide range of mental health professionals.  As a clinician, she practices mainly psychoanalysis and couples therapy.  She works with adolescents and adults, providing “long-term, in-depth psychological treatment aimed at alleviating depression, anxiety, and severe problems in work and love.” Harriet is committed to being an active presence in her patients’ and her students’ lives. Recently, she’s also returned to HB as a member of the Head’s Council, advising school administrators on ways to maximize the effectiveness of classroom and extracurricular programs.

Harriet says she’s grateful that her parents chose to send her to HB, even though they didn’t live nearby. She credits her high school alma mater and its emphasis on gaining knowledge through life experience with giving her the confidence to pursue her ambitions. “I would say that, because of the amazing teachers I had and the wonderful friendships I formed, HB sparked and insured my love of learning and my desire to become an engaged, contributing member of society.”  

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