Dennis Small grew up in Philadelphia, but his heart and mind usually drifted elsewhere. Not to the Jersey Shore or the next step up the corporate ladder. Mr. Small instead wanted to get his hands dirty. The bigger the challenge, the more he embraced it.

“He was always on an adventure,” his father, Dennis Sr., said. “His whole life was one giant adventure. He was quite an explorer.”

Those quests ended suddenly when he contracted COVID-19. Mr. Small, 37, died at his childhood home in Roxborough on Sunday, March 29. His mother, Andrea, believes he caught the illness during a trip to England to visit his girlfriend, Solah Bowden, a few weeks before. Bowden and her father also had the coronavirus but recovered. Andrea Small also had a bout with it.

Mr. Small joined the Marines shortly after graduating from Roman Catholic High School in 2001.
Courtesy of the Small Family
Mr. Small joined the Marines shortly after graduating from Roman Catholic High School in 2001.

Mr. Small was 18 when he enlisted in the Marines the summer after graduating from Roman Catholic High School in 2001. On Sept. 11, 2001, the world changed.

“It didn’t really deter his decision,” said his sister, Bonnie. “If anything, it probably motivated him more to go.”

He was a combat engineer who served three tours in Iraq, followed by several years working as a private contractor in other areas of conflict, such as Somalia.

“It’ll be my mission, as his brother, to make sure his sons know exactly who there dad was and how he was somebody they can be proud of.”

Younger brother Timmy Small

“Through your diligence and hard work, [you] assisted your platoon in successfully accomplishing over 100 missions traveling over 12,000 miles through an environment fraught with small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, improvised explosive devices and indirect fire," commanding officer J.M. Schultz wrote to Mr. Small in a 2004 commendation letter for his involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom II.

“Your enthusiasm and dedication to the Marines at Camp Fallujah ... set an example that others will follow.”

Wherever life took him, Mr. Small never forgot his roots. In fact, he couldn’t. Reminders were tattooed all over his body. The Liberty Bell. Rocky on the Art Museum steps. Even the Market-Frankford El.

“He loved everything Philadelphia,” Bonnie said. “He had the skyline tattooed on his leg.”

Mr. Small shows off the catch of the day. Fishing was another passion for the Philadelphia native.
Courtesy of the Small Family
Mr. Small shows off the catch of the day. Fishing was another passion for the Philadelphia native.

Mr. Small met his girlfriend in 2017 and spent a year living in Liverpool, England, before another itch came.

“He always wanted to go to Alaska,” said his mother. "He wanted to be out there by himself, forging his way.”

Mr. Small and Bowden made the 3,400-mile drive across the continent (another adventure, his father pointed out) to Alaska and settled in Anchor Point – 130 miles south of Anchorage – with the dream of his captaining his own commercial fishing vessel.

He was there until February, when a fire destroyed his home. Bowden and their son were in England at the time. But he lost three Husky puppies he had been raising.

“That devastated him,” his mother said. “Life was unkind to Dennis in the last few months of his life, but no one can deny that he had a lust for life and an adventurous spirit.”

In addition to his mother, father, sister, and girlfriend, Mr. Small is survived by sons Christian and Ronan, and a sister and a brother. Another child is due in June.

A ceremony honoring his life is set for later.

Ed Barkowitz, ebarkowitz@Inquirer.com

The Small siblings posed for this photo in London. From left are Timmy, Lilly, Dennis and Bonnie.
Courtesy of the Small Family
The Small siblings posed for this photo in London. From left are Timmy, Lilly, Dennis and Bonnie.