ST. PETERSBURG — To Dallis Wolfe’s family, it was always clear that he, the youngest of three boys, would carve his own path.
He was the one who would run ahead of his brothers and mom on the walk to school because he wanted to be first to class. He was the one who, at an even younger age, would sneak off on his own at family outings, only to be found with a look on his face that said, “What do you guys want? I’m okay.”
He grew into an intellectual young man, his family said. He was quiet but observant and a great listener, a voracious reader who asked for Barnes & Noble gift cards for his birthday and tore through Frederick Douglass, Japanese comics and Confucius. His dad watched in awe as his demure son turned into a vocal leader on the football field, playing three years as an undersized but determined defensive lineman for St. Petersburg High School’s varsity squad.
Wolfe’s family has deep roots in St. Petersburg — they’ve run the Starling School daycare and preschool on 28th Street S for nearly 50 years — but he chose to ride his smarts and athleticism away from home. He went to school and played football for two years at Maryville College in Tennessee, then transferred to Alabama A&M, a historically Black university in Huntsville attended by his high-school friends.
“I’m not even sure about the independence — it’s just (how) he was,” said his mother, Karen Howard. “Dallis was really the one to (show) curiosity … I do believe now it did come from the books, his reading and wanting to know more.”
Wolfe, 22, was less than a semester away from graduating with a degree in psychology, his family said, when the senior honor student was fatally shot outside his Huntsville apartment on Jan. 18. AL.com reported that the accused shooter, Lemond Burns, 21, faces a capital murder charge.
Burns was one of several men squatting in the common area of Wolfe’s apartment, the Alabama news site reported. Wolfe had complained about the situation days before police said Burns shot him at the complex’s front gate.
Now Wolfe’s family is racked with grief for the path he carved being cut short — the loss of a caring young man, the loss of a future in which they believe he would’ve made the world a better place.
His family also noted the sad irony of his death. As gun violence has disproportionately afflicted Black communities in St. Petersburg and elsewhere, politicians and pundits have offered a number of remedies: education, community involvement, tight-knit and present families. Dallis Wolfe embodied all of them, and yet.
“He was going to make a difference,” Howard said. “He was loving and compassionate. That’s the hard part for me. He was doing what was right.
“I didn’t think that’s how he would leave here,” she added. “It just — it’s hurtful.”
Wolfe tended to make life decisions quietly but with careful consideration, his family said. He started at Maryville College because he got the impression he’d be taken seriously there not just as an athlete, but as a student, recalled his father, Marion Wolfe.
“You’ve got to be smart,” the father said, remembering his son’s rationale. “And if you want to play football, (they) let you play football.”
Dallis Wolfe surprised his mother when he told her he planned to major in psychology. He was so reserved, she worried he’d have trouble connecting with patients if he decided to work in a clinical setting. But then she remembered that her son never struggled to communicate when the subject was serious, and he was a prodigious listener.
He seemed especially in his element while working with children, including at the Starling School, family members said. He’d help out at the school on college breaks and applied what he was learning in psychology classes.
His aunt Jennifer Howard-Black said he could connect with kids who needed extra attention — some with learning disabilities, others who had experienced trauma.
She remembered one exceptionally shy girl who, over the course of three summers, came out of her shell every time Wolfe returned to help. Parents reached out to the school, crediting him with teaching their kids how to spell their names. A few weeks ago, Wolfe’s great-aunt Janice Starling said, a parent of a former student stopped by the school and passed along a message from her child: “Dallis taught me how to read.”
He had an interest in social justice, and family members said he wanted to serve as a role model for Black children.
“He didn’t like a lot of recognition for what he did,” Howard-Black said. “You could tell he did it from the heart.”
After he was killed, Howard-Black said, the family learned Wolfe kept volunteering with children while studying in Alabama. He also considered continuing his education with graduate studies in neuroscience.
His family met his group of close friends. It was bittersweet: Because of his death, they learned how loved he was, how much he meant to others.
“When he was there, he found who he was,” his mother said. “As parents, you always know or think your child is special. But, I mean, when you hear all these stories … that’s the part that warms my heart.”
“We taught him how to treat people,” his father added. “And he did it. He did it.”