Don Wolff had many passions in life.
From the pursuit of justice as one of St. Louis’ top defense attorneys, to fighting for peace for the disadvantaged as an advocate for organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Urban League, Wolff never let any of his passions fall by the wayside.
However, one passion did seem to take precedent – jazz – and he made it abundantly clear as host of HEC-TV’s I Love Jazz program.
Wolff fell in love with jazz music as it echoed from clubs he wasn’t old enough to enter while he sold newspapers in St. Louis’ Gaslight Square district, according to friends and relatives.
As a soldier in the 1960s, Wolff would frequent the Army Post Exchange to hear bootlegged copies of jazz performances. He also saw live concerts as American jazz surged in popularity while rock ’n’ roll swept the states, said Madeline Dames, I Love Jazz producer who worked with Wolff his various jazz endeavors for almost 20 years.
Wolff died Friday (Nov. 20, 2015) of leukemia at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. He was 80.
“Don Wolff was not only a lover of jazz – and it showed through our I Love Jazz program – he was a long-time friend, and devoted family man and contributor to our community,” said Dennis Riggs, Executive Director of HEC-TV. “He leaves behind a legacy of fighting for justice and diversity, fighting for peace and equality, and fighting for jazz music and education in St. Louis and everywhere. Don’s passion for life will always inspire us.”
Wolff grew up as a son of a grocer who owned a small neighborhood corner store in St. Louis and was a track star at University City High School, where he graduated in 1955. He earned a scholarship to the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he studied law.
After serving in the Army, Wolff returned to St. Louis and worked as an assistant St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney, known for taking on cases no one else wanted.
He then entered private practice as a criminal defense and civil rights attorney, where he gained acclaim as one of the top national lawyers.
Wolff served as a legal consultant for KMOX, an adjunct professor for St. Louis University School of Law and authored and presented legal education to many lawyers. He was a member of numerous bar associations and president of the St. Louis County Bar Association and the Lawyer’s Association. He was judge for Creve Coeur.
He served for 50 years with Big Brothers Big Sisters, including president of the board and legal counsel. He served on the Board of Regents of Harris Stowe State University, which houses the Don and Heide Wolff Jazz Institute. At the Urban League of St. Louis, he served as chairman of the board and legal counsel. He also was legal counsel at the ACLU. He served on the Advisory Committee of the Family Violence National Council, United Hebrew Congregation Board of Directors, Cystic Fibrosis, Boys Town of Missouri, and Legal Advocates for Abused Women.
Wolff supported Backstoppers and taught at the St. Louis Police Academy. He established and funded the Donald L. Wolff Scholarship at the University of Missouri Law School to help disadvantaged and minority students.
He hosted radio shows for decades on KXOK, WSIE, KMOX, and KFUO, as well as on Tunein Radio. He emceed Glendale and Webster Groves jazz festivals and recently received the National Jazz Hero award from the Jazz Journalists Association.
He was a member of the Boards of Boys Town of Missouri for 30 years and at Laumeier Sculpture Park. He was inducted in the University City High School Hall of Fame.
He is survived by his wife Heide, his sons Michael (Sarah) and Nelson (Susan) and daughter Kristina (Patrick) and grandchildren Pierce, Jessica, Hugo, Harbor, Julia, Hobie, and Evalina.
Donations may be made to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, the Urban League of Metropolitan St Louis, or the DLW Scholarship Fund at the University of Missouri School of Law.
Funeral arrangements with Berger Memorial. A New Orleans Jazz style celebration of Don’s life will be held at United Hebrew Congregation, 13788 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO 63141 Monday, November 23, at 3:00 pm, with a visitation at 2 p.m.