Kay Williams had been working at Amicus for a few months before she had an amusing epiphany. Most days, a friendly woman passed Williams’ desk to say hello. The same woman wandered regularly into the break room to see how Williams was faring outside of prison walls.
Then it hit her. The “low-profile” woman was Louise Wolfgramm. “You would never know she was, like, the president of the company,” Williams said.
Such is the quiet power of Wolfgramm, 66, who led Amicus for 41 years without veering from one abiding principle: Nothing matters more than human relationships.
That mission will guide Amicus as it merges with Volunteers of America-Minnesota without Wolfgramm, who retired April 1. She will consult during the transition, working with CEO Paula Hart, whom Wolfgramm calls “a powerhouse.”
Amicus works within the prison system to help people re-entering society find jobs, housing and other services. Its One-to-One program matches trained volunteers with inmates to support those goals. Many friendships endure for decades.
Wolfgramm fans say that nobody was a better friend to prisoners and former prisoners than she who led the organization since she was barely in her 20s.
“Louise is the person who inspires all of this,” said Williams, 58, who spiraled downward after her son was shot in 1993 at age 20. “They don’t care what you did before. They root you on and encourage you. All of that trickles down from Louise.”
Gini McCain agrees. “She was as revered by the offenders as she was by the judges who sat on our board,” said McCain, a longtime Amicus board member.
Wolfgramm was destined for this work. Her father was a psychiatric social worker at California’s San Quentin State Prison and, later, director of research for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He on occasion brought his little girl inside prison walls, where she observed him always treating offenders with respect.
Her mother was a social worker. When Wolfgramm was in seventh grade, the family lived for a year in London. In church one day, a desperate man walked in looking for a priest. But the priest had left, so Wolfgramm’s mother talked the man out of his threat to kill someone.
“I remember how calm she remained,” Wolfgramm said. Her mother stayed with the man “until she knew he was going to be OK.”
The moment taught her “how an individual can be courageous and make a difference.”
Wolfgramm moved to the Twin Cities in 1969, doing odd jobs. Then she heard a radio ad for Amicus. “This makes sense to me,” she thought. “This is what I’m going to do.”
She volunteered at first, working with women prisoners in Shakopee alongside the governor’s mother, Gwen Dayton. She started connecting the dots to how so many women ended up behind bars. Alcoholism and drug addiction. Abuse. Poverty. Racism.
They desperately needed someone in their court, she realized. After about six months, she began recruiting and matching for One-to-One. It was sometimes challenging to find volunteers but equally challenging to find inmates willing to sign up. “They’d say, ‘Once she gets to know me, she won’t come back.’ ” Wolfgramm said. “But they did come back.”
As word of the program grew, prisoners began to recommend it to others, many offering “precious” permission to release their files, Wolfgramm said, “to let us know who we’re dealing with back to the day they were born. Many don’t have the best memories from childhood.”
As crucial as those prisoner-volunteer bonds were, Wolfgramm knew that the biggest test was what happened after release. “The first 72 hours is the most critical,” she said. Amicus also is known for its Reconnect program which helps former offenders find jobs and a place to live.
James Cannon Jr., a former Amicus staff member who now works with Twin Cities RISE!, spent time in Hennepin County jail and knows how hard it can be to find a job with a criminal record. Luckily, he also had Wolfgramm as a mentor.