Jim Wofford, who died Feb. 2 of pancreatic cancer, will be remembered next week during the 2023 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event—a competition he was a fixture at for decades as an athlete, coach or commentator—with a memorial service at 6 p.m. April 27 at Spindletop Hall in Lexington. Here, we share memories of him from one of the many people who considered Wofford a mentor and whose introduction to the Olympian came, fittingly, with a splash into the Head of the Lake in Kentucky.
Just like when the Queen died, you just couldn’t believe the Queen was dead because she seemed like this iconic person in your life who was always going to be there. I feel the same way about Jimmy Wofford.
I just never really thought about a world without Jimmy in it. It was inconceivable to me somehow. He was just that big to me and to a lot of people.
Everyone who met Jimmy felt they had their own personal story with him, and he made you feel that way because he listened to you. When you were speaking with him, you were the only thing he was thinking about, and everyone is so distracted these days, on their phones. You’d never have a conversation with Jimmy where he was looking at his phone, and that is very uncommon these days. He was truly interested in what you had to say, and that was a great, great quality of his.
Jimmy has been there as a part of my eventing career from the beginning. One of the very first eventing competitions I ever saw was the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day event [in 1986] when Jimmy won on The Optimist. I was at the Head of the Lake when he jumped in, and The Optimist’s head went under the water. I was standing right there, and I was a cowboy up until then; I wrangled horses for the Park Service. I worked cattle. But I saw that with a group of college friends, and I remember thinking, “Wow! That guy is like the real-life Man From Snowy River. I want to do that!”
And then, I ended up at Fox Covert Farm not long after that with Karen O’Connor and was with Jimmy every day because he was in his office at Fox Covert. Just talking with him, we realized we had an incredible amount of stuff in common, which I think all real friendships are founded on. His family is from Kansas; I was an Army brat, so we lived in Fort Riley. Then Jimmy and I were both Sigma Nus [fraternity] in college; we both loved to fly fish and shoot, and we loved history, especially Civil War history. Those common interests grew into Jimmy becoming a real mentor to me, and that mentorship grew into one of the most important friendships in my life. He ended up becoming like my big brother.
He was my touchstone. I talked to Jimmy five or six times a week and rarely about horses. We hunted and fished literally all over the world together. We had great adventures, and I am so sad to lose him, but gosh, trying to have more fun with Jimmy almost feels like being greedy. We had such a great time together. I don’t think Jimmy and I ever spoke a cross word to each other.
The thing about Jimmy is we are really losing a lot of stuff along with him. One of the things we are losing, which is significant, and I don’t know if too many people appreciate, is our connection to the past and the history of eventing. Jimmy deeply understood and deeply felt, as I do, staying connected to your history is so important to figuring out where you are going. He knew the DNA of eventing like very few other people.
One great story, and it’s not my story; it’s my wife Molly’s story. She has beautiful red hair, but when she was younger, it was very curly red hair, and as a teenager she was self-conscious because this made her different. So, Jimmy went up to her, I think at the North American Young Riders Championships, and you know, he was Jimmy Wofford! And he walked right up to her and said, “Another redhead, one of the chosen.”
It took her from feeling different to feeling special, and Jimmy made people feel special. Jimmy has been making me feel special for my whole adult life. And now he’s gone.
I think that was the essence of him. He made people feel special. And I guess the reason I wanted to talk to him so often was because every time I had a conversation with him, I felt a little more special. He had that gift.
And it wasn’t always saccharine. I remember being in the elevator with him—and this was actually very funny—a young eventer said, “Oh, Jimmy, I am excited to meet you. I’ve read your books, and I’m going to be riding in a clinic with you in few weeks,” and he looked at her and deadpan said, “I bet I make you cry.” He just had this very dry wit, and it put her at ease. He could deliver that line and not crack a smile. He did that a lot.
He was always very concerned with getting things right, whether it was as the president of the AHSA, in the saddle, or being a commentator; he didn’t take any of that lightly. He wanted to get it right.
With anyone, I guess the measure of a life well-lived is how many people did you positively impact? It’s not money or fame, but how many people did you help along the way? By those standards, Jimmy was a very, very rich man. He lived a very rich life and helped a lot of people in a very positive way. And you know what? He had a blast doing it too!
Man, we had a good time. We had a great time.
It is sad to lose him, but I was so lucky to have him in my life for so long. It was just such an accident we found each other.
Everything That Needs To Be Said
It was really great to be able to take him, along with his wife, Gail, to the Piedmont Fox Hounds meet in January. He was having a hard time with mobility, but he decided he really wanted to go see the foxhounds, and he asked me to take him.
The night before Gail said she wasn’t sure if he would be able to do it, and they would let me know in the morning. And in the morning, he wanted to go, so we loaded him and his nurse and Tiger the lab into his car, and we went to the meet, and it was great.
It was a very brisk January day, but the sun was out; the hounds were milling around. There were a lot of people out that day. Everyone hunting came by and said hello to him, and all the masters came over and said hi, and hounds came over. I got a great picture of Jimmy with a hound, and we had a great time. It was fun; it was just us, farting around like usual.
It kind of felt like that might be the last time I would see him. I was doing pretty well with it, and we were having fun until I started to leave and was like, “Oh damn.” I shook his hand, and he started getting a little teary, and I said, “Jim, you don’t have to say it. The best thing about our friendship is we’ve said everything that needs to be said.” And that was the last time I saw him.
Honestly, it couldn’t have been better. It was really like one of those Hallmark movies. I didn’t want him to see me upset, so I turned and walked away and saw Gail on my way out, and I just said, “I can’t talk right now. I will call you later.”
Before my brother-in-law Jake died, he said to Molly, “I will always be there, but it will be like I am in the next room. You just won’t be able to see me.” And for me, with Jimmy, I said to him, “You’re always going to be with me. You’re just going to be around the next bend in the river. I just won’t be able to see you.”
We always fished like that—I’d fish one stretch of river, and he’d fish the other, and we’d hopscotch each other so we were always just one bend around the river from each other, and that’s how I will always think of him now. He’s always going to be there, just around the bend in the river.
Jim Wolf was born in Nuremburg, Germany, and raised in Elkins, West Virginia. He graduated with honors from Bethany College (West Virginia) with a degree in history. Over the course of his career in equestrian sport, he has been a wrangler, groom, foxhunter, eventing competitor, administrator, event organizer and marketing and sponsorship executive. Jim has served as the U.S. Equestrian Team director of eventing, executive director and chef d’mission for the USET at numerous Olympic, Pan American and World Equestrian Games. He has been involved in the organization of many international events and is currently the president of Wolf Sports Group. He lives with his wife, former international eventing competitor and U.S. team rider Molly Bliss, and their daughter, Josselyn Wolf, at their home in Barrington, Rhode Island.
This article appears in the March 13-26, 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.