Donald L. Wolff, 80; prominent lawyer, host of jazz broadcasts

Donald L. Wolff

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Donald L. Wolff, recently of Bonita Springs, Fla., and a former longtime resident of St. Louis, died of leukemia at Barnes-Jewish Hospital on Friday, Nov. 20, “in the embrace of his wife and children,” a family statement said. He was 80 years old. 

Mr. Wolff was a longtime prominent lawyer in St. Louis,  and host of popular radio and TV shows featuring jazz from all eras. He was also active in Jewish and general community causes and organizations.

Donald Lee Wolff was born in St. Louis on Sept. 25, 1935, the son of Morris and Betty Wolff. His father owned a small grocery store in a mostly African-American neighborhood. Mr. Wolff’s son, Nelson Wolff of Clayton, said that this experience and his strong Jewish faith made Mr. Wolff “very aware of discrimination and particularly sympathetic to racial discrimination,” which made his father a passionate advocate for civil rights.

Mr. Wolff graduated from University City High School in 1955 and later earned his bachelor’s degree and law degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He served in the Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) in the U.S. Army while stationed in Germany. 

He worked as an assistant prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County and later entered private practice as a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, gaining a local and national reputation.

Mr. Wolff’s twin passions, in addition to his wife and family, were his zeal for practicing law and seeking justice, and his love of jazz. He fostered an interest in the music by amassing a huge collection of recordings and hosting numerous radio and TV shows on which he played and discussed familiar classics and hard-to-find jazz records. 

For decades, he hosted popular shows on KMOX (1120 AM) radio, as well as the “I Love Jazz Show” on HEC-TV. He recently was named a Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists Association.

In the course of Mr. Wolff’s legal practice, he gained respect among his peers for his willingness to take on difficult and sensitive cases that were reluctant to take. As an assistant prosecutor, he prosecuted a sitting St. Louis County Circuit Court judge. As a defense attorney, he took on capital murder cases as well as those involving First Amendment issues.

Mr. Wolff was a former legal counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. He served for 50 years with Big Brothers Big Sisters, including serving as board president and legal counsel. He was also on the Board of Regents of Harris-Stowe University, which houses the Don and Heide Jazz Institute. At the Urban League of St. Louis, he served as board chair and legal counsel. 

He also served on the Advisory Committee of the Family Violence National Council, and the United Hebrew Congregation Board of Directors. He was also active with the Cystic Fibrosis organization, Boys Town of Missouri and Legal Advocates for Abused Women. He was a past president of the local Jewish National Fund.

Mr. Wolff served as adjunct professor at St. Louis University School of Law, and president of the St. Louis County Bar Association and the Lawyers Association. He was also municipal judge for Creve Coeur.

Mr. Wolff was a co-founder of the African-American/Jewish Task Force co-sponsored by the Urban League of St. Louis and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

He supported the Backstoppers, taught at the St. Louis Police Academy and set up the Donald L. Wolff Scholarship at the University of Missouri Law School for disadvantaged and minority students.

A memorial service was held Monday at United Hebrew Congregation, where Rabbi Howard Kaplansky emeritus officiated. Numerous family members, legal colleagues and organizatonal leaders paid tribute to Mr. Wolff. The service was followed by a New Orleans jazz-style funeral.

Survivors include his wife, Heide of Bonita Springs, Fla.; two sons, Michael Wolff (Sarah) of St. Louis and Nelson Wolff (Susan) of Clayton; a daughter, Kristina Hourihane (Patrick) of Glenview, Ill; and eight grandchildren.

Memorial contributions 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 UM School of Law.