Herbert Donaldson, a life well lived

By Tammie Beasley

 Mr. Herbert L. Donaldson of Brandenburg turns 93 this month. Although a big celebration is not possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of his close family members and friends will gather safely with him to wish him happy birthday and have ice cream and cake. Fortunately for him, many of his large family members live in Brandenburg and Meade County.

 I have known the Donaldson family since I was a child. Growing up, I remember that Herb always liked to tell stories and jokes. I sat down with Herb and two of his daughters at his home to talk to him about his life. I knew that Herb has packed a lot of living into his lifetime so far, but I had no idea of some of the life events he told me about.

 Herb was born in West Point, Kentucky, and grew up there. He was called by the nickname of Sonny by his mother and many people in West Point. His father, Frank, worked at Kosmosdale until he contracted tuberculosis. He entered the Waverly Sanitarium in Louisville, which was then a tuberculosis sanitarium, and his roommate there repaired watches. Both the roommate and Frank recovered enough to leave the sanitarium, and they then proceeded to work together repairing watches. Frank’s health was never the same after having tuberculosis so Herb often went with him to work, and he learned to repair watches and clocks as well. Frank died when Herb was 17 years old. His mother, Della, was a hair dresser and also owned restaurants in West Point. They built onto one of them, and it later became Herb’s restaurant. Herb had one sister, Wanda, who was two years older than him. Because Herb could not say Wanda as a young child, he called her Dotty and most of the family called her Dot because she was about the “size of a dot”. Dotty married a military man and lived in several places, including eight years in Germany. When he retired, they returned to Kentucky to settle back in West Point and lived there until their deaths.

 Herb had several jobs growing up to include paper boy and working at his mother’s restaurants. One of his jobs at the restaurants was to kill the chickens. He used a stick to twist up under their neck to pop their heads off ,and then, he put the bodies down in a hamper to keep them from being bruised. When he was carrying the newspaper when he was 12 or 13, he unfortunately witnessed a double shooting. A little girl came running down the railroad track crying that her daddy was going to kill her mommy. There were some people sitting on a porch so he took the child up to them and told them what she said and left her there while he went to see what was going on. He cut behind the neighbors house and into an alley and heard a shot and saw a woman falling down some steps. He continued on and looked around the house and saw the man shoot himself in the chest. Herb said he could actually see the man’s heart pumping through the hole in his chest. At that time he delivered the newspaper on foot so he took off running to get help. The woman was already dead, and the man died on the way to the hospital.

 After Herb’s father contracted tuberculosis, he was always afraid that Herb would get hurt and he would not let him play sports of any kind. Just for laughs, Herb and one of his friends tried out for the high school cheerleading squad…and they both made it. They became the first male cheerleaders in West Point. Herb did get to play a year of basketball before graduating from West Point High School. His dad, Frank, never knew.

 Herb started dating Peggy Louise Quiggins, also from West Point, when she was 14 years old. Peggy was two years younger than him and went to school with him. She was also a cheerleader so she and Herb were cheerleaders together in high school!

 Herb joined the Navy after graduating from high school but because he was only 17 years old, his mother had to sign papers and get his birth certificate before he could enlist. Dr. Roberts, the doctor who delivered him in their house on 13th Street in West Point, always called him little Frank. So when they got the copy of his birth certificate, it had him listed as Frank Herbert Donaldson, Jr. and not as Herbert Lee Donaldson. His mother got his birth certificate changed to reflect the correct name right then. World War II was being fought when he joined but was over before he left the Pacific, but he said that for several months after the end of the war, the Japanese refused to acknowledge that the war was over!

 After enlisting in the Navy, Herb was recruited into the Seabees, a branch of the Navy. The motto of the Seabees is “We Build, We Fight, Can Do”. The earliest Seabees were recruited from civilian construction trades and were placed under the leadership of the Navy’s Civil Engineers. More than 325,000 men served in the Seabees in World War II, fighting and building on six continents and more than 300 islands. In the Pacific where most of the construction work was needed, the Seabees landed soon after the Marines and built major airstrips, bridges, roads, warehouses, hospitals, gasoline storage tanks, dry docks and housing. For more than 60 years, the Seabees have repeatedly demonstrated their skills as fighters and builders. Herb served in the Pacific Theater primarily on Manus Island and Guam. Herb said the funny part was that in the time he served as a Seabee, he was involved in tearing things down and actually was only involved in building one dry dock!

 One of the medics he served with on Manus Island kept a monkey as a pet. Herb said this monkey about did him in for good one night. Herb was working 85 feet up in the air on the dry dock and he did not know the monkey was anywhere around him, but it jumped out at him and scared him, causing him to lose his footing. If he hadn’t managed to grab hold of some chains at the last minute, he would have fallen off the dry dock. He said about a month later the monkey jumped into the ocean and although some of the Seabees tried to save him, they were unable to so he died. His daughters jokingly said their dad was really heartbroken about that! Also, he told me at times when some of them were working on the dry dock in the water, others were standing up on the dock shooting the sharks that were in the water around the men working!

 A tsunami hit Manus Island and destroyed their dock and shops so they moved over to Guam which was only about four miles away. While on Guam, he contracted malaria, a disease which took him a long time to recover from and from which he still has occasional bouts of chills and fever to this day. He said he was told that there was an incident in which he knocked the doctor out cold while he was delirious from malaria.

 Herb enlisted in the Navy in 1946 and in 1948, he was honorably discharged from the Navy in order to enlist in the U.S. Army and Air Force, which was a combined service back then. He and Peggy moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina with their baby son. This was during the Korean War, but every time his name came up to go to Korea, someone volunteered to go in his place so he never went overseas then. He spent a total of five years in the military. He was in the honor guard in all the services he served in. He has many pictures and mementos from his time in the military. He also has his Navy uniform jacket which he showed to me. Inside the sleeves on both sides is some type of Japanese symbol that he had sewn into the uniform when he was in San Francisco. He says he doesn’t remember what it stands for but he couldn’t wear the uniform where those symbols were showing if he was on base!

 Herb married Peggy in the United Methodist Church at West Point, but he was almost late for his own wedding. He was supposed to go in the back of the church and go to the altar to meet Peggy and when he went to the back of the church, the equipment they used to record the wedding with (the wedding was actually taped on a 78 record) was blocking the doorway, and he couldn’t get in. He couldn’t raise anyone to let him in, and he didn’t know where they were in the ceremony. Just when he was about to go around to the front, someone came around back looking for him, and they had the equipment moved from the door so he could get in! Herb and Peggy became parents to five children: Barry, Gaylia, Karen, Jenny and Kim. Herb now has 11 grandchildren, approximately 25 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.

 Herb and Peggy moved to Brandenburg in 1954 when Herb began employment as Olin Chemical Plant as a lab analyst working for Earl Murphy who also lived in Brandenburg. He eventually worked his way up to Safety Manager. He worked at Olin for 28 years. His mother, Della, moved to Brandenburg near where they lived and worked with a local hairdresser, Edna Titchener. She eventually went back to working at West Point but continued to live in Brandenburg.

 In July of 1976, Herb’s safety training saved the life of a three-year-old boy in Mobile, Alabama. Herb had conducted a supervisor safety training session in McIntosh, Alabama and after the session was over, he returned to his motel in Mobile, Alabama to join his wife and daughter there. They were sitting around the motel pool where Herb was sitting with his back to the pool when his wife cried out, “Herb! Do something”! He turned around and saw a man dragging a young boy from the pool calling for help so Herb took over. He immediately turned the boy on his back and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The boy was already purple. No one seemed to have any idea how long he had been in the pool, or how he happened to wander in fully clothed. When Herb listened for a heartbeat, all he heard was water sloshing in his chest, but he put the boy’s head back and began to try again. The boy regurgitated about three times which helped. When he was breathing on his own, Herb wrapped him in big towels to keep him warm, and soon the rescue squad arrived. He said the whole thing took two or three minutes, but obviously they were very important minutes! They learned later the boy was with a large group of gypsies who were celebrating a religious holiday in the motel. The group had been inside and apparently the little boy, John Merino from Chicago, slipped out and accidentally fell in the pool. While Herb’s efforts were called marvelous by the people who watched, it held a special significance for him. Herb recalled, “It was my birthday, and it was the best present I ever received.”

 When Herb left the chemical plant, he went to work for Lummus Construction Company, a Combustion Engineering Company in Bloomfield, New Jersey. His work with this company took him to Basrah, Iraq, Monrovia, West Africa, Thailand, and ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates. He said that ABU DHUABI was all sand and showed me a picture of it. His work in Iraq involved setting up safety programs, protocol and training. Peggy was unable to join him there for a year because they did not have any housing available for her. When she did join him, she did some secretarial work while she was there. She had only been there a few months when the complex was bombed. The home where they lived was also hit. Peggy was home at the time, and Herb was at the complex. Both places were virtually destroyed. Herb was hit in the hip with a fire hose during the bombing. He has a piece of shrapnel in his home from the bombing in Iraq and many other mementos. It was a miracle they escaped without serious injuries. The family did not know for three days whether they were dead or alive. They both came home in 1980. They received their belongings from Iraq and when they opened them up, instead of good clothing, it was clothing riddled with holes from bullets and shrapnel. Later, Herb was asked to return to Iraq to try to salvage some of the programs which he did but Peggy did not go back.

When Herb left Lummus Construction, he was the Construction Safety Manager and had 33 years experience in Petrochemical and the Construction Industry. Twenty-three of those years were devoted to Safety and Loss Prevention Practices. He next took a job with Rust Engineering in Oak Ridge, Tennessee so he and Peggy relocated there. He stayed there for 3 ½ years and then retired. The company did not want to lose him so they offered him a contract job as a Safety Consultant, and so they stayed there another five years until he finally said it was time to retire completely and come home. They returned to Kentucky and moved in with Peggy’s mother in West Point while they were building their home in Brandenburg where Herb still lives. Sadly, Peggy’s mother passed away before they got moved into their new home.

In the early 1970’s, Herb waged campaigns for Magistrate for the Meade County 4th District and for the Republican state representative for the 18th District in Kentucky. His Democrat opponents beat him but not by much so he said that he felt had not done too badly and it was a good experience.

Herb and Peggy were charter members of the Hillcrest Country Club and Herb was in charge of the Clubhouse for a couple of years. Herb loved to golf so he taught to Peggy to golf. He must have been a good teacher, maybe too good, because she was able to beat him a few times and she also became the Hillcrest Country Club Ladies Golf Champion! He was also a Kentucky Colonel and a past Master of the Masonic Lodge.

Herb and Peggy loved to dance and they did it often. Herb taught his children such dances as the box step, fox trot, and the waltz. Some of the older children took dance lessons at the Hillcrest Country Club with many other children of members who belonged there. Some of the families’ favorite memories revolve around Herb and Peggy dancing.

Herb also loved to scuba dive and did a lot of scuba diving in the Ohio River and Doe Valley Lake. He also gave scuba diving lessons at the Hillcrest Country Club. He did some scuba-diving to explore the wreck of the Alice Dean, a steamboat which was captured, burned and destroyed in 1863 between Brandenburg, Kentucky and Mauckport, Indiana by confederate troops under the leadership of John Hunt Morgan. He retrieved some screws and nails which he has proudly displayed in his home. He also donated some of the screws to the Kentucky History Museum in Frankfort.

Herb was also a boxer for a time. He actually became the lightweight Golden Glove Champion of Ohio. He said that the guy he was boxing at the time said something to him that he didn’t like and he just knocked him out…and he didn’t get back up so he won!

Herb drove his golf cart around his neighborhood for years and was known as the Mayor of his subdivision. He said that now the Mayor of Brandenburg lives in his subdivision so he lost his title to him! Herb no longer drives his golf cart around the subdivision but he does still have his lawn mower!

Herb has many interesting mementos in his home. He also has many different types of rocks, some of which he showed me. One of his most prized possessions is a pair of widgets he brought back from Iraq. He showed them to me and explained to me how they worked.

He also has a signed picture of famous racehorse jockey Pat Day at Keeneland on his wall. He said they had been at the races at Keeneland and Pat was there signing autographs. He waited in line for a long time with a picture of Pat that he had bought but every time he got close, people with disabilities or VIP passes were called ahead of him. He said he understood that but he finally gave up and left. Later they were dining at a restaurant in Lexington, and lo and behold, Pat Day came in and sat right at the table next to them! So Herb went out to his car and got the picture and brought it back in and asked Pat to sign it, which he graciously did!

Herb loves to tell stories and jokes. When I asked him to tell me one of his favorite jokes, he told me the following: “A couple had four children and they named them Eeny, Meeny, Miny and John. When a friend asked the father why they didn’t name the last child Mo, he replied that they didn’t want no mo!”

In 2017, Herb lost the love of his life, Peggy, after being married for 69 years. That was not the last heartache Herb was to endure. In 2018, he also lost his daughter, Jenny.

His daughters told me that Herb loves babies and little children, a statement which Herb confirmed. He loves to play with and do tricks for his youngest family members. Herb told me a story about one time he talked to a little girl in a store who had a sucker in her hand and he jokingly asked her if he could have her sucker. She gave it to him and of course he gave it back to her and she started crying! He said he gave it to her mother and the little girl kept crying. He guessed she was upset that he didn’t actually keep the sucker. He decided then and there he would never do that again!

When I asked Herb what he thought the secret to a long life is, he said he didn’t know. He said that if he had known he would live this long, he would have taken better care of himself. I personally think that his secret of life is his joy of life!

So Happy 93rd birthday to you, Mr. Herbert Donaldson. Thank you for your service to this country, your continued devotion to your family and friends, for your laughter, and congratulations on a life that was, and is still, well lived!