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By Ed Reiter

Twenty years ago, some looked upon Diane Wolf as a female Don Quixote, tilting at Washington windmills and dreaming impossible dreams of exciting new coins.

She died far too young, at the age of 53, on Jan. 10, 2008. But today she is remembered not as a failed crusader, but as a true visionary who saw the need for redesign of regular U.S. coinage and played a key role in laying the necessary groundwork.

In the last 10 years of her life, this vigorous, articulate woman saw her dreams realized in many different ways – in the 50-state Washington quarters, the Sacagawea dollar, the Westward Journey nickels and the presidential dollars, to name some prominent examples.

She viewed these as evidence that her dreams were possible after all. And though she didn’t shepherd any of these programs through the U.S. Mint, the Treasury and Congress, she was convinced that her hard work in the late 1980s and early 1990s helped smooth the way for their authorization.

“I have to think that because of all our efforts, the Congress was more apt to listen to the next group who came in with new coin designs,” Diane told me in an interview nearly a decade ago, shortly after the start of the 50 State Quarters program.

“I think that our group did a great job in educating the Congress. And we really did. We really made them aware that coin design change could happen – so when that change did come about, it was accepted.

“I also was delighted that the language used in the bill for coin design change was almost the identical language we had used. That was very gratifying, too.”

Diane became interested in U.S. coin designs – and the need to update and upgrade them – while serving as a member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in the mid-1980s. President Ronald Reagan appointed her to that panel, part of whose purview is the artwork on U.S. coinage and national medals. She didn’t have a coin collecting background, but she was young and dynamic and was looking for a cause where she could make a difference – a windmill, if you will. And coinage redesign became her magnificent obsession.

During the next few years, she energized hobbyists and hobby periodicals, lobbied members of Congress, strove to establish contacts at the Treasury and the Mint, testified at hearings before congressional panels, made herself available for hundreds of media interviews – and in every way imaginable, poured herself and her resources into the uphill fight for redesign.

By 1991, she had won some important battles but still wasn’t close to winning the war. Legislation authorizing coinage redesign had been passed by the U.S. Senate on multiple occasions, but had been blocked repeatedly in the House of Representatives, where Illinois Democrat Frank Annunzio, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage, stood in its path like George Wallace in the schoolhouse doorway – but much more effectively.

“We were taking on a big challenge,” Diane observed. “There we were, rocking the boat against this Consumer Affairs Subcommittee chairman. And it wasn’t really about design change. I think the whole thing was about the new guard coming in and rocking the boat against the old guard. Annunzio hadn’t started it. It was somebody else who had started it – and it was a female and it was a young female.

“I’m happy that those times have changed.”

Congressman Annunzio wasn’t the only adversary Diane had to contend with during her crusade. The U.S. Mint – and particularly Mint Director Donna M. Pope – threw up constant roadblocks and detour signs as well.

“On my watch,” she recalled, “the Mint was very opposed to coin design change. They said it couldn’t be done – that people would never accept new coins, that Americans weren’t ready for a change. The Mint director would go around and tell everybody that our coinage wasn’t broke, so we didn’t need to fix it.

“In the end, the bad guys lost and the good guys won. And that’s really how I look at this whole thing. In retrospect, I was blessed with a controversy. The more controversial coin redesign became, and the more the subject made the national papers, the better off it was for getting new designs – because people actually looked at the old designs and realized how much we needed new ones.”

Though things looked much rosier in retrospect, the outlook seemed bleak in the early 1990s, and battle fatigue was taking its toll on Diane.

“By that time,” she said, “I had really exhausted my funds. I had fought for redesign in three separate Congresses, over five years or more, and I had used my own money – a lot of money – to do it. I had done what I could. And I finally decided that you can’t just keep fighting City Hall.

“But I’m proud of the job I did. I did such a good job that down the road a piece, people still remember me even now. And I’m really delighted to see the change in attitude toward coinage redesign – in Congress and especially at the Mint.

“The government is recognizing the revenue enhancement that we said it would receive through redesign. The government is recognizing that people are clamoring for a change. Kids are getting involved in coin designs again. Everything we predicted is coming true.”

Philip N. Diehl, Mint director in the late 1990s, helped bring both the 50-state quarters and the Sacagawea dollar to fruition. Diane met Diehl only once, at a meeting where he discussed the Mint’s preparations for the 2001 Library of Congress commemorative coins. But he made a lasting impression on her – and an altogether favorable one.

“I fell in love with the guy,” she exclaimed. “He was everything I ever dreamt a Mint director should be. He was aware, he was accessible, he was innovative, he was open to change – he was great.”

Diane had left the battlefield by the time the statehood quarters and new mini-dollar coin became important matters in Congress and at the Mint. But she didn’t spend the Nineties in seclusion. With characteristic vigor, she flung herself into a series of new challenges.

She spent three years as a full-time student at Georgetown University School of Law in Washington, D.C., earning a law degree in 1995 and subsequently passing the bar in New Jersey. She then served for nearly a year as a consultant to Boutros-Boutros Ghali when he was secretary-general of the United Nations.

“Washington,” she said, “is pretty much of an old boys’ network. And a lot of people on Capitol Hill went to Georgetown Law School. I didn’t want to go to Yale, I didn’t want to go to Harvard, I wanted to go to Georgetown, because that’s where a lot of people on the Hill went. And the more you can have common shared experiences, the more it helps to get things done in Washington.”

She was dealing with members of Congress frequently at that time through her involvement with the Madison Council at the Library of Congress and the committee planning a new Visitors Center at the U.S. Capitol. And in both roles, she re-entered the realm of coins – for Congress authorized commemorative coins to honor and help finance both the library and the Visitors Center.

“I’m very excited about what I’m doing now,” Diane declared. “I was asked to help with the commemorative coins for the Visitors Center, and I was already involved with the program for the Library of Congress.”

Diane followed the 50-state quarter program, but only at a distance. And on the whole, she liked what she saw.

“We’re going in the right direction now,” she said. “I think the designs could be better. But that will come to pass. I think you have to look at these new designs as a big step in the right direction.

“It’s easy to sit back and say what you would have done differently. So while I would like to have seen better engraving, better designs, I don’t want to be a Monday-morning halfback.

“I am just so gratified, after spending years of my life and a lot of my own money, to see that what I really wanted – and what so many numismatists wanted, and so many senators and so many congressmen, and so much of the American public wanted – finally come to pass. So I can’t be too harsh on the designs themselves, because the very fact that we have change at all is just great.

“Do I think they’re beautiful coins? Not necessarily. Do I think we’ll have beautiful coins in the future? I would hope so.”

Diane still believed that U.S. coinage needs a total redesign.

“I’ve always thought that,” she said, “and I still think so today. The bills I supported called for change in all our coins. They’ve simply got to get better. But now we know that change is really possible. We’ve broken through the barrier.

“Kids growing up today are simply going to assume that our coin designs will change. And they will. And they’ll get better. And maybe we’ll get some great numismatic artists again. Maybe people will go into numismatic art again. This is a foot in the door – and once the door is open, it can’t be closed.

“Who would have thought 10 years ago, when we were running into all that resistance and frustration, that within a few years there would be 50 design changes on the quarter.

“I have to think that we really helped bring this about. So I think you’ve got to look at the pot as being more than half full. I think we’ll see things change even more, and change for the better as well.”

Diane envisioned a new golden era of beautiful U.S. coins – a 21st-century version of the age this country enjoyed in the early 20th century.

“I’d like to go back to the days when we had the quality of artists such as Saint-Gaudens and Fraser,” she said. “I would love to see beautiful imagery. I’d love to see bimetallic coins put into circulation, such as they have in France. I would love to see all that. The thing I’d really love to see the most is better sculpture.

“And I’ve got to think that this is going to happen. I really do. Because Americans are learning about coins, are looking at their coins for the first time in so many years.

“We could have a series of coins with great Americans, or great themes of America. Look at some of the coins and paper money around the world. There are great inventors, there are great musicians – you can do anything.

“The fact is, we’re getting America in sync again about our coinage, getting them to recognize coins as tiny ambassadors of big ideas – ideas that are important to this country. Little kids in Connecticut are now collecting Connecticut quarters; little kids in Georgia are collecting Georgia quarters. This makes them more interested in their state, and soon they’ll become more interested in history in general – and in coins as a whole.”

Diane made it clear that she took great pride and pleasure in the way things were working out.

“We had a good thing; we had the right idea,” she remarked. “We were just a little ahead of our time.”