People flocked to downtown Modesto on Tuesday to say goodbye to Deputy Dennis Wallace, a popular officer with a soft spot in his heart for youths who was killed on duty nine days earlier.
Officers in uniform came by the hundreds, if not thousands, from every corner of California and beyond – some wore New York Police Department badges. Judges, politicians and dignitaries of every stripe – even Gov. Jerry Brown – came to honor Wallace in a memorial service steeped in respect, with a healthy side of humor.
Although few civilians could squeeze into CrossPoint Community Church’s cavernous main hall – otherwise filled with uniformed officers – regular people also came by the thousands and observed from overflow rooms. And you got the feeling that all just might have been a friend of Wallace, 53, a man who loved life, loved people and loved to laugh.
Dennis and Mercedes could not have kids of their own, so they poured themselves into the lives of all the kids around them.
Dave Wallace, brother
“Dennis would find humor in anything,” said his good friend Scott Hardman, a fellow Stanislaus deputy sheriff before his retirement.
In one of many poignant moments, 31 young people climbed to the podium and stood behind Jake Wallace, who introduced them and himself as among the deputy’s 34 nieces and nephews. Although Dennis Wallace’s love for children was legendary – he worked tirelessly with schools in Salida and his hometown of Hughson, and refereed football and coached soccer – he and his widow, Mercedes, had none of their own.
“(We) represent Dennis’ kids,” Jake Wallace said, and he talked about their tio, or uncle, attending all of their sports and FFA events. “He was committed to all of us. He was committed to everything except his diet,” he said to thunderous laughter.
He would say, ‘Quit crying, because crying makes you ugly – and most of you don’t need help with that.’
Jake Wallace, nephew
“It’s impossible to fill the void he left,” Wallace continued, his voice quivering. “We will honor him by carrying on.”
Two teachers – one each from Salida’s Dena Boer Elementary and Salida Middle schools – said Dennis Wallace befriended countless youths, serving as a mentor and confidant to many. He took vacation to accompany classes on trips to amusement parks and Washington, D.C., history teacher Greg White said.
“He didn’t just inspire the students; he inspired me as well,” Marika Morrison said.
Family friend George Carr said the deputy once came upon a sick student waiting for a ride home. Wallace recognized that the boy had more than the flu and called an ambulance, whose personnel determined the boy was having a heart attack and rushed him to the hospital. He made a full recovery, Carr said.
“People ask, ‘Can one person really make a difference?’ The answer is yes, when that one person is Dennis Randall Wallace,” he said.
Dennis was a do-anything, help-anyone, get-the-job-done person.
George Carr, family friend
The governor did not speak at the service, but was seen moving toward family members just after. Only moments before, the audience heard a radio dispatcher’s “final call” piped into the church, bringing many to sobs. Mercedes Wallace sunk to the floor, encircled by loved ones.
Other dignitaries showered Wallace with honor.
“(Wallace) was a role model for all,” said U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham. “He was committed to making the future something worth fighting for.”
“Dennis wore his badge with pride,” said Sheriff Adam Christianson. “Time will heal our pain, but we will never forget his sacrifice.”
If there’s such a thing as half-birthdays, the Nov. 13 slaying came on Wallace’s 53 1/2 . Other than Christianson bemoaning the “senseless act of violence,” details of the shooting – he had come upon a stolen van in the Fox Grove fishing access near Hughson, called for backup and was shot seconds later – were absent. David Machado, 38, was arrested 150 miles away four hours later, and may face the death penalty.
His dedication was unshakable and his compassion was sincere.
Marvin Jacobo, pastor
Denham and others called Wallace a hero. His brother, Modesto police Detective Dave Wallace, heaped praise, too, but shared the deputy’s mischievous side, including Dennis’ penchant as a boy for eating an entire frozen cake and hiding the wrapper under Dave’s bed.
Although Dennis Wallace “didn’t know a picking thing about soccer,” he saw its positive impact on youths and helped found a soccer league, serving as its president, his brother said. They refereed football games until both retired only in June, Dave Wallace said.
“It’s been very, very hard,” he said, trying in vain to hold back tears, “but in time, we will laugh again and we will heal.
“He cannot be remembered simply by how he died,” Dave Wallace continued. “He would want us to smile and to laugh through our tears.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390