Gene Wolfe: 1931-2019

Former Plant Engineering senior editor became fantasy writing legend.

By Bob Vavra May 20, 2019

To recall the life of Gene Wolfe as a former senior editor of Plant Engineering magazine from 1972 to 1986 would be wholly accurate—and wholly inadequate.

After leaving Plant Engineering, Wolfe went on to become among the preeminent science fiction writers in the world, and his death on April 14, 2019 at age 87 was commemorated with an obituary in the New York Times, among other places.

According to his obituary, Wolfe was a veteran of the Korean War and worked as an industrial engineer for Procter & Gamble before embarking on his career at Plant Engineering in 1972. Wolfe recalled those days fondly in a 1998 interview in the fall/winter edition of Nova Express, a science fiction magazine. “I was lucky enough to be the robot editor, so I got to work with modern, real world robotics. I actually have two diplomas from robotics schools I attended. So that was very nice,” Wolfe said. “I guess I’m branching off into other things, but I also got to be the Letters to the Editor editor, which was good and fun and taught me a lot of stuff, and I was the cartoon editor. Basically, I had a real good job.”

On the Website Ultan’s Library, Wolfe expanded on those duties. “Senior editors had to supply cover articles, ‘supply’ meaning write the articles and take the pictures, including a cover picture that could make it past the art director,” Wolfe said in the interview.

“We had other responsibilities as well. I was the editor for power transmission (hydraulics, gears, pneumatics, belts, et cetera) and fastening and joining (welding, glue, screws, et cetera), and also the editor for cartoons and letters to the editor,” he added. “There was an electrical editor, a construction editor, a materials-handling editor, a maintenance editor, a safety editor, and so forth. It was hard at times, and easy at others.”

After leaving the magazine, Wolfe wrote more than 30 novels and hundreds of short stories during his prolific career as a science fiction writer, including the highly acclaimed “The Book of the New Sun” series from 1980 to 1983. In a 1998 reader poll in Locus magazine, the series was ranked third on the list of fantasy novels published before 1990, finishing only behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Wolfe was awarded the Nebula Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the World Fantasy Award, the British Science Fiction Award, the Locus Reader’s Poll and the Rhysling Award. In 1996, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the World Fantasy Convention, and in 2007, he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

Wolfe’s engineering work earned him one other claim to fame. He was one of the people instrumental in the invention of the machine that cooks Pringles potato chips.

Preceded in death by Rosemary Wolfe, his wife of 57 years, and his son Roy Wolfe, Gene Wolfe is survived by his daughters Madeleine (Dan) Fellers of Mountain Home, Arkansas, Therese (Alan) Goulding of Woodridge, Ill., son, Matthew Wolfe of Atlanta and 3 granddaughters. Memorials in Wolfe’s name may be made to American Heart Association.

Author Bio: Bob is the Content Manager for Plant Engineering.