In the wake of Steve Wolfe’s death on Jan. 5, those he coached, inspired and competed against have eagerly shared their memories of lessons learned, opportunities given and the certainty that Wolfe always had others’ best interests at heart.
“We are feeling really loved and grateful for all the kind words,” said Wolfe’s youngest daughter, Rosemary. “Everybody has been so sweet. It makes us feel like we got to touch as many lives as our dad did.”
Wolfe was known for giving others opportunities.
“I first got to know him when I was in junior high and decided I wanted to join the wrestling team,” said Tela O’Donnell of meeting Wolfe in the mid-1990s, a time when girls were an oddity in the world of high school wrestling. “He was behind me 100 percent. I wasn’t a girl who wrestled. I was a wrestler who happened to be a girl.”
It was evident to O’Donnell when she showed up for her first practice that her male teammates were uncomfortable with a girl wrestler, however.
“He started out the practice by saying, ‘At the end of the day, Tela’s going to be able to throw me,’” said O’Donnell. “And at the end of practice, he had me do the move on him. … It took a potentially difficult situation and just made it great and made it positive for me and everybody.”
O’Donnell went on to wrestle for the United States in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
Ian Pitzman, a two-time state wrestling champ in the 1980s, also recalled the impact Wolfe had on his life.
“He was so genuine that you never doubted for a second that he wanted what was best for you,” said Pitzman. “He was a really competitive guy, but if I would get a takedown on him or some successful move, he would give it up grudgingly, but then he couldn’t be prouder of me.”
Chris Perk recalled as a youngster first seeing Wolfe when Perk attended Homer High School wrestling matches “back when they won back-to-back titles in the 1980s and wanting to be part of that team that was so strong.”
Perk became a two-time state placer during his years at Homer High. At Pacific University in Oregon he was named an All-American Champion. Perk continues to wrestle competitively and just completed his 16th year coaching wrestling for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, 13 of those years at Homer High School.
A graduate of Brigham Young University, with a master’s degree from Alaska Pacific University, Wolfe spent more than 30 years teaching and coaching at schools that included Homer Middle, Homer High, Voznesenka and Chapman schools. Wrestling might have been his main interest, but Wolfe also coached football and other sports.
Among his long list of accomplishments are owning and operating Wolfe’s Lawns since 1978; beginning the local Popeye Wrestling Club in 1979; leading the Homer High School Mariners to state championships in 1982, 1985 and 1986; producing eight individual state champions and 32 individual place winners at Homer High; producing an individual state champion and six individual place winners at Voznesenka; producing four borough championships total for Chapman and Voznesenka middle school students and coaching Alaska’s wrestling team for the 2006, 2008 and 2010 Arctic Winter Games.
He was named the 1986 National Wrestling Coach of the year; inducted into the Homer High School Hall of Fame in 1987; inducted into the Alaska State Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1988; named the Alaska State Wrestling Coach of the Year in 2010; nominated for National Wrestling Coach of the Year in 2011; and inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2013.
Conrad Woodhead, principal of Chapman School, met Wolfe before Woodhead came to the Kenai Peninsula.
“I coached against him when I was coaching wrestling in Shaktoolik and Unalakleet, so I was definitely aware of who he was when I came down here,” said Woodhead.
The two became better acquainted when Woodhead was hired as the Anchor Point school’s head administrator, where Wolfe coached middle school wrestling and substitute taught.
“I would describe him as a fierce competitor, who was definitely an advocate for all the kids he worked with,” said Woodhead. “When we get into this business, all we want to do is make a difference. From looking at his life and knowing about him, I am confident that he did that very well.”
As the coordinator of Homer’s Community Recreation Program, Mike Illg saw the long reach of Wolfe’s influence.
“His legacy of sharing his knowledge and passion of sports and living life reached many, many kids who are now parents and teaching some of those things to the next generation,” said Illg.
In spite of a demanding work and coaching schedule, Wolfe found time to write three books: “Call Me Coach: Alaska’s Greatest Wrestling Stories”; “Call Us Champions: More Alaska Wrestling Stories”; and “Call Us Olympians: Even More Alaska Wrestling Stories.” When author Marianne Schlegelmilch moved to town, she and her husband Bill hired Wolfe’s Lawns to do their yardwork. That eventually led to Schlegelmilch and Wolfe’s connection as authors.
“(Homer author) Ron Hess, Steve Wolfe and I were like the three amigos, fiercely independent, wanting to sell our books and looking for our own opportunities,” said Schlegelmilch. “Steve got a tent and we stuck it up on Pioneer Avenue and tried to hit on days when tourists were coming through. … We figured if we needed exposure, we’d get out there and get some.”
She recalled Wolfe’s unique sales approach.
“He would say to people looking at his books, ‘My books are guaranteed to make you laugh. If you don’t laugh, I’ll give you your money back.’ As far as I know, he never had to give any money back,” said Schlegelmilch.
One day, as Wolfe was driving away from Schlegelmilch’s home with a load of berry-laden branches he had trimmed, a flock of birds followed him down the street.
“I wrote that scene into one of my books, showed it to him and said, ‘This is about you. Here’s where I get my inspiration,’” said Schlegelmilch, laughing.
Illg is one of those who enjoyed the humor in Wolfe’s books.
“I’m glad he took the effort to write down those stories,” said Illg. “I’ve read them all. They’re pretty funny, great stuff.”
Perk said the unwritten stories with which Wolfe used to end each practice also left their mark.
“Every day he had a story of something motivational proving that anybody could do anything, whether it was being trapped under a log and having to use superhuman powers to move it or a David-and-Goliath-type story. He ended every practice with a story that left you thinking about what you could do,” said Perk.
“He was a great guy,” said Pitzman. “I loved him and I’m sure he is going to be missed.”
Indeed, he is already.
“He definitely was part of our community,” said O’Donnell. “I miss him.”
Wolfe’s death was caused by a variant of Guillian-Barre Syndrome. A website has been developed at youcaring.com, where donations can be made to help with resulting medical and other expenses. Comments about Wolfe also can be written at the site: bit.ly/1a1ziwK.