Donald C. McDonald’s eyes light up as he talks enthusiastically about the characters and events that framed early Los Altos history. The names Paul Shoup and George Ramsey may not mean much to today’s Los Altos residents, but these early settlers fascinate the man whose love of history is always very much part of his present.
That love has spurred longtime, ongoing volunteer work at the Los Altos History Museum. But Don’s cultured side – he loves travel, fine art and opera – also played a role in his helping to found Los Altos Sister Cities Inc., an ambassadorial organization that has spread the good will of this community to countries around the world.
Don, 92, has sparked interest in the stories of others among countless Los Altos residents. He has played a major role in the community’s commitment to respecting its history.
Because of his 40 years of volunteer work enlightening the Los Altos community, the Town Crier has named Don its 2010 Los Altan of the Year. The paper presents its annual honor to residents whose contributions create good will and make Los Altos a desirable community in which to live.
Don, known by many as the town historian, said he was “deeply honored and humbled.”
“This is right up there with a major award stipend I got from NSA (National Security Agency),” Don winked, “but that one paid better because a lifetime stipend went along with it.”
Don began volunteering not long after he arrived in Los Altos in 1970. With the Los Altos History House Association, he worked as a docent, conducted approximately 100 interviews for the museum’s Oral History Program and wrote many historical items for the museum’s newsletter and the Town Crier.
He was guest curator for the 2000 exhibition “Los Altos as a Homefront in World War II,” and used that information as part of a new book published this year for which he wrote captions. “Images of America: Early Los Altos and Los Altos Hills” (Arcadia Publishing, 2010) is credited to Don McDonald and the Los Altos History Museum. He attended special events and book signings in support of the book, which covers the history of the region from 1850 to 1950.
“Don is a great person to work with,” said Lisa Robinson, museum collections manager, who also played a major role in the Arcadia book. “He loves to share information and is a great communicator. … He is a gentleman. He listens, but if he doesn’t agree with you, he will politely disagree. He loves maps and aerial photographs. He works well in a team.”
Adds Jane Reed, a former Los Altos mayor who heads the collections committee at the museum: “His contribution to the discovery of stories about our local history has been invaluable. For many years, Don carried the research load for the museum … I see him sitting at the table with his white gloves on – reading articles and turning page after page in search of various local topics and scintillating stories. Discovery delights him.”
Reed, who managed the Arcadia book project, praised Don for his work in organizing and editing the text.
“I so respect him, and am so grateful that there is a guy in town who not only loves our history, but uncovers it,” she said.
In 1990-1991, Don served as Los Altos Sister Cities vice president for Bendigo, Australia. The Los Altos Historical Commission appointed him a member in 1999.
Former Los Altos Mayor King Lear, a longtime member of Sister Cities, remembers Don’s involvement.
“Don joined the Sister Cities Committee in the late 1980s, when we were just beginning a relationship with our first sister city, Bendigo,” Lear said. “Don went to Bendigo at least once on our behalf.
“One of my best memories of Don’s activities was when the Bendigo Braves semi-pro basketball team decided to come to America and play here in Los Altos. … The Braves wanted to play Stanford, but Stanford (couldn’t) accommodate our request. So Don went out and found a pickup team of guys who practiced at the San Jose State basketball courts. Some of these fellows were former NBA players.
“We set up the game on the Los Altos High School basketball court – Don found some experienced referees. The game was pretty exciting, and the San Jose team just barely won.”
For his volunteer work, Don received the Los Altos-Los Altos Hills Joint Community Volunteer Service Award in 2000. And in 2008, the Los Altos City Council honored him by proclaiming his 90th birthday, July 25, “Don McDonald Day.”
Oh, there’s more: From 1980 until last year, he volunteered at the Bechtel International Center at Stanford University, both as a teacher and a conversational partner for foreign scholars and their spouses. From 1974 until 1995, he periodically taught poetry classes for the Palo Alto Adult School.
His interest in history led him to join such local organizations as the Peninsula Civil War Round Table (where he served as president in 1991), the South Bay Civil War Round Table, the Palo Alto Historical Association, the Mountain View Historical Society, the Moffett Field Historical Society and the Society for Aviation History. He has also written for the Glendale Historical Society.
Born in Indianapolis in 1918, Don lived in Lakewood, Ohio, from 1921 to 1929 and in Glendale from 1929 to 1942. He graduated from Glendale College in 1938 and UCLA in 1940.
During World War II, he served in a U.S. Navy unit (OP-20G) working on Japanese Naval codes and ciphers in Washington, D.C. From 1946 to 1950, he taught cryptanalysis in the Los Angeles U.S. Navy Reserve Unit and worked as a title officer at TI&T Co. He returned to cryptologic work for the Navy during the Korean conflict, which by then was centralized in what soon became the NSA.
In 1953, Don resigned his Navy commission for civilian work at NSA. While at NSA, he had two foreign assignments: deputy senior liaison officer in Melbourne (1954-1957) and deputy and later chief of NSA’s largest overseas activity in Fuchinobe, Japan (1961-1965). For his work in the latter post, he was decorated by the South Korean government, and he received NSA’s Meritorious Civilian Award. He worked at NSA until retiring in 1970.
Don married La Verne Ingram of Glendale in 1941. They had three children and divorced in 1948. He married La Von Sundry of Fergus Falls, Minn., in 1949, and she became mother to his three children.
A few years after her death in 1969, Don reunited with Los Altos resident Audrey Harper. Audrey’s husband, Robert, who died in 1970, had been a school friend of Don’s in Glendale. All three were part of a circle of young friends fascinated with symphonic music and operas.
Don and his friends pursued their hobby by ushering and collecting tickets at the Hollywood Bowl (where Don, Robert and Audrey first met in 1938) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Shrine auditoriums.
“A very handsome young man,” Audrey recalled of her first meeting with Don. “I was impressed.”
They went on a double date, only they were dating other people. Audrey dated the man who became her first husband. However, Don and Audrey (and their families) remained friends through the decades. They reconnected as a couple after their spouses died a year apart. They married in 1977.
A man of many interests
Pursuing a special interest in early music, Don founded the Washington Recorder Society in 1957. He organized and led the Silver Spring Consort, which sponsored a number of early music programs in the Silver Spring Library in Maryland. In addition to being an excellent recorder player, Don is a published poet.
He is an avid amateur photographer. Don enjoys theater and performed in a number of community theater productions, as well as at Camp Zama, Japan.
For nearly 30 years, Audrey and Don traveled worldwide. They took many trips to Europe and Australia; polar voyages from Greenland to the Canadian Arctic, and to Antarctica; three extensive freighter trips – around South America, from and to San Francisco (1976); around the world, from Antwerp westward to Rotterdam (1991); and from New Orleans to Algeria and Egypt, returning through the St. Lawrence Seaway to Cleveland (1978). They also participated in 10 Elderhostel programs in the United States and one in France.
Their north Los Altos home is filled with items collected on their travels, such as boomerangs from Australia and woodblocks from Japan. But Don’s biggest and most important collections are friends.
“He keeps in touch with people,” Audrey said. “If you’re his friend, you can’t get rid of him.”
“A remarkable person,” Los Altos resident Karen Van Buren, Audrey’s daughter, says of her stepfather. “He’s always fun to be with.”
At the center of all his activities is Don’s obsession with history.
“He decided to pick a date – 1653 – and find out what was happening all over the world,” Van Buren said. “He dragged (Audrey) to some open field in Portugal because of a battle there with Spain in 1653.”
Said Don, “I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t be interested in history. You’ve got to know where you came from.”
That passion extends to the arts as well. Audrey recalled Don’s staying awake at night ranking his favorite paintings in the museums of the world.
Don is eager to share his passions with his friends, family members and acquaintances. He organized tours of the Bay Area for his 11 grandchildren and has written his memoirs for them.
Putting on the charm
Blessed with energy, intelligence and curiosity (“He’s interested in everything,” Audrey said), Don’s most endearing trait may be his charming, friendly and even-keeled personality. Audrey recalls how they got lost while traveling in Italy.
“I was really upset,” Audrey said, “but Don kept it in. I was amazed at how he controlled his temper.”
“I just try to make (life) as pleasant as possible,” Don said with a smile.
With typical humility, Don downplays his achievements and attributes his life’s successes to good fortune.
“I think 10 percent is genealogy, 5 percent is not doing the wrong things and 85 percent is pure luck,” Don said in explaining his success – and longevity.
Health has slowed Don’s activities a bit, but he plans to continue volunteering at the History Museum as long as he’s able. After all, his curiosity hasn’t abated.
“The more you know, the more you’d like to know,” he said. “I’m resigned (to not finding out all the answers) – happily resigned.”
Note: Don will be the subject of a special event Sunday in recognition of his Los Altan of the Year honor.