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Life Story / Obituary
Donald Holmes Myers (known to most of his friend as “Donnie” or “DJ”) was born on December 27, 1956, in Kalamazoo, the only child of Donald Royal Myers and Hilda (“Tortelson”) Myers. Don died peacefully in his sleep at home on October 20, 2016, from the ravages of advanced ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). He was 59 years old.
Truth be told, Donnie didn’t like the name “Donnie”, especially after his father died. He didn’t think it “fit” the profile of a man in his 50’s. He didn’t mind when his softball buddies called him “DJ”, which stood for “Donald Junior”, so as to distinguish him from his dad, but as Donnie was quick to point out, it wasn’t correct. He was not a Junior in the full sense of the word. His dad’s full name was Donald Royal Myers, and he was Donald Holmes Myers. The middle name of “Holmes” was important to Donnie because within the famous “Holmes” family tree he and the noted poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (and his son, the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr), were collateral descendants. That’s good stock. But Donnie’s sentiments notwithstanding, we shall refer to him as “Donnie” because it is the only way in this short biography to distinguish him from his dad, whom we shall call Don.
Both of Donnie’s parents held Ph. D’s in Chemistry from The Ohio State University. Don was born just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, and Hilda, a true “Yankee”, was born and raised just outside of Boston. At Donnie’s birth his mother was head of the Department of Chemistry at Kalamazoo College. Donnie’s dad was a senior research scientist at The Upjohn Company. Although trained as a bench scientist, Don was the son and grandson of journeyman carpenters. He managed to combine the practical skills required for carpentry (picked up working with his dad) with the intellectual demands of organic chemistry to become a highly regarded chemical engineer. It became his job at Upjohn to determine if it was feasible for the Company to manufacture new compounds in commercially saleable quantities. Don had won the Upjohn Award for his work in developing Folic Acid. In addition to being accomplished academics and researchers, Don and Hilda were both committed hunters, fishermen and naturalists.
Don had been a regular visitor to the “Ohio Compound” on Mullet Lake, in the very northern part of the Lower Peninsula, long before taking the Upjohn job, so it was only natural that he and Hilda would continue taking an annual fishing trip to the Lake once they married and moved to Michigan. It was on the occasion of one of these trips in 1957, when Donnie was only nine months old, that he contracted meningitis, which left him with a lifelong seizure disorder and a slight cognitive impairment.
Donnie’s mother resigned her position at K College to care for Donnie while Don committed his life to making his son as self-sufficient as possible. A neurologist early on recommended that Donnie be maintained in his bedroom for the rest of his life, both for his own good and that of his family and society. Donnie’s parents thought this ill-conceived advice was ridiculous and took it as an extra challenge to make their son self-sufficient.
Because of Donnie’s physical problems, his school years -- both elementary and high school -- were difficult. He was aware of his cognitive impairment, which was serious enough to cause chronic frustration and greatly test his patience. As his dad bluntly put it, back in those days “Donnie had one hell of a temper.” But Donnie was not without intellectual strength. He was fully capable of studying and discussing formidable subjects. His adult friends can all recall instances when Donnie would interrupt a discussion of substance to ask a question which cut to the quick of the issue.
Donnie loved baseball, but his seizure disorder and an irascible coach made it difficult to find a place on his high school team, although he thoroughly enjoyed playing baseball in the township summer league, where he was warmly accepted. He also made a hobby of long-distance running with various friends. His school years were smoothed out by the friendship of several classmates who stood by him from kindergarten through his dying days, in particular Mark Schirripa. One way or another Donnie persevered and graduated from Gull Lake High School. He made a stab at attending Western Michigan University, but it wasn’t his element.
Don and Hilda persisted in their efforts to make their son self-sufficient. In addition to providing a warm and loving home, Hilda introduced Donnie to biographies of famous military and political figures and engendered in him a lifelong interest in reading and history. For his part, Donnie’s Dad was absolutely convinced that his son could compete in the broader world. Don pitched Donnie hundreds of softballs almost every evening when weather allowed. Over time Donnie became a well-known and well-regarded clutch hitter who could place the ball wherever he wanted. Along the way Don taught Donnie how to be a first baseman and how to use his 6’2” height and wide reach to scoop low throws out of the dirt.
Don and Donnie (often called “The Donnies”) became a legendary father-son partnership on the softball circuit for over 20 years. Don, an excellent athlete in his own right, was a skilled pitcher who played well into his 70’s. He was forced to retire only when league sponsors feared that he might get hurt. Donnie played for over 30 years until the symptoms of ALS compelled him to bow out.
In addition to teaching his son to play softball, Don also taught him to become an aggressive table tennis player. Don headed up the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek Table Tennis Association for many years. Since Donnie could not drive because of his seizure disorder, Don drove himself and Donnie to hundreds, if not thousands, of games and meets throughout SW Michigan for the 20+ years in which they participated together. The twin sports of softball and table tennis, and the countless leagues and teams in which they functioned, helped Donnie to develop social skills that would survive once Hilda and Don were gone. They introduced him to most of his lifelong and loyal friends, including Ron Beebe, Gary Crawford, Jerry DeYoung and Steve Butler. The list goes on and on. It’s hard to imagine a greater commitment of love and affection of a father toward his son.
This is not to say that Donnie was always a cooperative student of his father. Don would fume and yell whenever Donnie failed to run-out a soft hit or pop up and until Donnie settled down after his father’s death, he tended to throw temper tantrums whenever he struck out or hit a sure put-out. It took years to cure Donnie from throwing his bat in disgust on those rare instanced when he struck out. After all, softball was one of the few things in life that he could do well, and he took it too personally when he failed at the challenge.
Donnie’s seizure disorder occasionally interfered with his playing softball, but did not prevent it. All of his teammates were aware of Donnie’s seizure history as were many of the players in the League. They developed a regular routine for dealing with it. A seizure usually resulted in Don walking aimlessly around the field or, on rare occasions, actually falling down. When this occurred Donnie’s teammates would call time out, take him to the dugout and see that he sat out the game until he had recovered. As soon as Donnie sat up straight and grabbed a beer it was clear that he was ready to resume play. What a genuinely classy bunch of guys.
When he was not playing catch with his dad or playing softball or table tennis, Donnie tended to his substantial coin collection. He enjoyed going to coin shows with his dad and negotiating with dealers to upgrade his collection. Woe be the coin dealer who thought he could scam Donnie. Donnie also took a great interest in popular music and had an extensive collection of records, tapes and CD’s. This interest lead Donnie to read biographies of leading figures in the music world. In many ways music was the perfect refuge when consumed by frustration.
Donnie was also a long-distance runner well known to residents within five miles of his home. Until he was sidelined by the ALS, he regularly ran 6 to 10 miles a day and collecting bottles and cans along the way. The monies Donnie received from cashing in bottles and cans went to funding his coin collection. Donnie did work for about eight years back in the 1980’s in the maintenance department at East Town Mall where he could function with moderate supervision, but there came a point where conflict with a supervisor made the job environment untenable. Don and Hilda decided that working had become counter-productive for Donnie.
As many readers of this short tribute already know, the Myers’ house is situated on 160 acres of lovely land overlooking a large garden and wetlands with Campbell Lake in the distance. The land is home to numerous natural springs feeding a creek and clever small dams engineered by Don. In short, it was, and is, a glorious environment in which to grow up. Donnie knew every inch of the land and regularly walked special paths with his trusty beagle “Sam.
Hilda died in 1999 and Don died in 2010. Don gave up driving in 2004 after a small accident which was deemed his fault. Don was in need of help looking after himself and Donnie. Just about that time David McMorrow, a Kalamazoo attorney who had been become friendly with the Myers’ family, had decided to withdraw from active law practice following several unsuccessful spinal surgeries. As a result of this confluence of fates, David then became much more active in “The Donnies” lives, doing all the food and clothes shopping, cooking 3-4 evening meals a week, arranging easy-to-prepare meals for times he was not there, hiring housekeepers, maintaining the house and yard, finding out-of-the-way restaurants, and generally looking after things.
David arranged for sponsorship of softball teams in Portage and Comstock so that Donnie would have teams on which to play. He sponsored the Portage team under the name “TriStar Molding, Inc.”, a business in which he had an interest. He joined with his cousin Ed Cagney to sponsor a Comstock team under the name “Ed Cagney Farms.” For the last two years, as Donnie declined from ALS, Carleton Equipment Company sponsored a Comstock team under the name “Myers Marauders” in Donnies’ honor. Many of Donnies’ teammates came from the Carleton Equipment Company. David drove Donnie to all of his games (with occasional help from Ron Beebe). Until his death, Don always came along as a spectator and critic (“Damnit Donnie, run out your hit!”). David also took Don and Donnie to the All Star game when it was held in Comerica Park and, in the fall, made sure they attended Notre Dame football games with him. In the midst of these activities Donnie and David maintained their memberships in Hickory Ridge Golf Club where they played from early Spring to late Fall.
Every Sunday while Don was alive David would take him and Donnie on long leisurely driving trips throughout lower Michigan, and sometimes into Indiana and Ohio. Don, Donnie, David and “Sam” were common sights on the South Haven pier, the Saugatuck boardwalk, the Grand Haven waterfront, the facilities in Yankee Springs, and those at Tillers International in Scotts. Don was a strong supporters of the Tillers mission. He particularly appreciated the way in which they preserved and taught traditional arts, especially timberframing and carpentry. The Woodshop at Tillers is named the “Don and Hilda Myers Woodshop.” Donnie was very proud of this facility.
The Donnies and Sam were also accepted into David’s family by his wife Mary Beth and their adult children. Mary Beth always set plates for the Donnies and their presence was always expected by the McMorrow family for holiday meals and parties. When David’s brother Gregory took his turn at hosting a holiday dinner, the invitation was always automatically extended to the Donnies. Don lived long enough to be present at the wedding of David and Mary Beth’s daughter Kathleen, a very special event since Don had known Kathleen since she was a youngster. After Don’s death, Donnie and Sam remained part of the McMorrow family.
Several members of David’s extended “Cagney” family are farmers in Kalamazoo County and yet others live on or near Indian Lake. The Donnies were gradually absorbed into their families. The Sunday drives often involved a trip to one or more farms or a boat ride on Indian Lake. TR and Lori Cagney, Ed and Schelle Cagney, Joe Cagney, Joe and Kathy Proxmire, and Jim and Barb Northam were always kind to Don and made him feel like part of the ”Cagney” family. In fact, for many years Don and Donnie (and Sam!) were part of the “Cagney Cousins Reunion” each summer. (The last time Don left his house before his death was to make an appearance at the 2016 Cagney Cousins Reunion.) When his health was good Donnie especially enjoyed riding in the combine or sitting in the bow of the speedboat. On a rare occasion when David and Mary Beth were out-of-town visiting their children over a holiday, TR and Lori would pick up Donnie and host him and Sam for dinner. And TR and Lori always tried to have Donnie over for the Michigan/Ohio State game (Don was a Ohio State fan in honor of his parents).
While Don was living David took Don and Donnie for summer vacations on Mackinaw Island, Mullet Lake, Pictured Rock National Seashore, and Sleeping Bear National Seashore. After Don’s death David and Donnie started taking more adventurous trips. For several years they attended Spring Training games of the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, Florida, where David’s brother-in-law, Jerry Howarth, is the chief radio announcer for the Jays.
David’s sister, Mary Howarth, would take care of Donnie like a mother hen, obtaining the best tickets and arranging for David and Donnie to meet Jerry after the games and for dinner. For his part, Jerry introduced Donnie to players, invited him into the broadcast booth, and joined Donnie and others after the game for fellowship and game analysis. When the Jays played the Tigers Jerry arranged for Donnie to meet Jim Leyland and later that summer arranged for Donnie, David, Mary Beth and Tim McMorrow to get on the field at Comerica Park for batting practice. (That’s when Jim Leyland signed the picture taken at Spring Training.) David and Donnie would skip over to Lakeland for some Tigers games. All in all, this was the ultimate baseball experience for a fan like Donnie.
David and Donnie also travelled to the AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for many summers. At first they flew with a friend in his plane for a one or two day visit, but in later years they drove so they could camp for a full week and indulge their interest in aviation. Donnies’ favorite trips were the two occasions when he and David went sailing in the British Virgin Islands for a week with their friend Ivan Richards, who has a master mariner’s certification. Just getting there was an adventure for Donnie who had not flown until he and David started travelling South. These trips were the only times he ever left the USA.
Donnie was the perfect travel companion. There was not an activity he did not enjoy. In many ways, his openness to adventure reflected his essential goodness. He did not have a malicious bone in his body. The only thing he ever criticized was being served broccoli at a restaurant. His friendliness and essential decency overwhelmed any social deficit arising from his seizure disorder and cognitive dissonance.
Donnie was formally diagnosed with ALS at The Mayo Clinic in early December 2014 (an appointment made when local physicians could not find any anatomical explanation for Donnie’s increasingly evident drop-foot). Fortuitously, that same month Erin DeRamus, the daughter of Don’s cousin Paula Bogart, and Erin’s Husband Ryan, and their three beautiful children Otis, Ophelia and Obadiah, came to live with Donnie pursuant to an understanding reached before anyone knew that Donnie had ALS.
A flock of angels could not have had a more beneficial impact on Donnie than the arrival of the DeRamus clan. Erin and Ryan cared for Donnie’s basic needs as his physical condition steadily deteriorated, acting without hesitation, without a word of complaint, and without any expectation of personal gain. Their children called Donnie “Uncle Don,” entertained him and always kissed him goodnight.
Hospice was engaged not long after Donnie’s diagnosis and provided equipment and limited personal care services. Erin and David retained two caregivers to provide overnight care, namely Millicent “Millie” Marston and Ngwka “Justine” Tukeh, two lovely and committed women. Millie worked for the Hospice service and became the contact on the account, hence she provided limited daytime care twice a week wearing her hospice caregiver’s hat and then the daily overnight care wearing her private caregiver’s hat. As Donnie’s condition deteriorated David retained Tony Kerzich, the widowed husband of David’s deceased cousin Colleen Cagney, to relieve Erin from the time Donnie awakened in the late morning until mid-to-late afternoon. Tony was a Godsend, a selfless caregiver and a wonderful friend to Donnie. Any person or family seeking high-quality help could do no better than Tony.
Worthy of special mention are Ivan Richards and Howard Dooley who along with David and Donnie met every Tuesday evening for many, many years at Bell’s and other local bistros to solve the world’s problems. They were often joined by Kelli Dickinson and Erick Schreur, among others. As his ALS advanced Donnie accompanied them in a wheelchair and about a year ago, when he couldn’t leave his house, the Tuesday evening gatherings were held there -- at his bedside. That’s real loyalty
Donnie undoubtedly left this world being eternally grateful for the love and affection not only of Erin and Ryan DeRamus and their children and Millie, Justine and Tony, but also the concern and affection of those friends, many from high school days, who regularly visited and/or wrote to him as he slowly succumbed to this horrible disease, in particular Julie Pixley, Barbara Lucas, Denise Partineau, Judy Thurston, Chris Didonato, Janice Smiertka, Rebecca Brown, Marri Ann Wagner, Denise Brockway, Steven Raseman, Mike Howell, Stacy Clancy, and Judy McMorrow; and his old softball friends Ron Beebe, Gary Crawford, Bob Cober (and Tammy and Will), Louie Hamilton, and Ken Baum. Don also spoke lovingly of his cousins Karen Schaefer and Paula Bogart (and her husband Brian), Erin’s father Rich (and his wife Nil), and Ryan’s parents Pat and Sandi DeRamus, all of whom periodically visited from their homes in the South and regularly called to check on Donnie.
The list of people who played a part in making Donnie’s life fulfilling is far too long to explore here, and as a practical matter may only be known to Don and those people. But you know who you are. Take heart that you have helped enable a decent, honest, inherently good, and guileless man live a full life far outside the confines of his bedroom, and perhaps, in the process, have helped make your lives fuller as well.