Donald Vandeven, 92, of Liverpool, NY, died of complications from Parkinson’s Disease on July 14th. Don was born, then raised during the Depression in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. He learned, and never forgot, the value of a nickel, since his grandmother “Mom” would occasionally slip him one so he could go to the bakery and retrieve a treat for them both. This initiated his lifelong love of sweets.
His interest in tinkering also started early on: by high school, he had set up a workshop in the family’s basement and got a job fixing radios at the Svedekun & Son Hardware Store. He graduated from St. Mary’s High School, then enlisted in the US Navy in 1944—before “they” decided into which branch of service he would be drafted. He attended Naval Training School at the Great Lakes (Chicago) facility. Based on his stories, it seems he spent as much time enjoying the Chicago music scene as he did in training.
During his WWII service, Don rose to the rank of Electronics Technician’s Mate Second Class and broadened his love of radio technology on a Landing Ship Main (LSM) in the Pacific Fleet. His “tub” delivered supplies for major projects, such as building landing strips on the islands of the South Pacific. The sailors on LSM 369 pooled their money and acquired a high-end movie projector, over which Don quickly took control—both keeping it running and procuring and showing movies. For his efforts, he was rewarded ownership of the projector after the war ended. Much to the disappointment of his father, Don swiftly sold the projector and bought himself a metal lathe, which still holds a place of honor in his current, much larger, basement workshop. He’d tell anyone “that machine paid for itself a million times over.” Don was aboard for the maiden voyage of LSM369, and was there for its last--a story he told over and over about it and the experiences that changed his life.
Don returned stateside to earn an Electrical Engineering degree under the GI Bill at Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy (Rolla). He worked for Globe Union where he sat next to a future Nobel Prize winner: Jack Kilby, the inventor of the integrated circuit. In true Don Vandeven fashion, the morning of the Nobel announcement, he said “Oh, I sat next to him at my first job.” He moved on to GE, which sent him to a life in post-war Europe. As a “rich American” on expense account in Europe, he made sure he tried everything. He spun many tales of fine wine, nice cars, beautiful scenery, and of course, great food.
It was on one of these trips when he met Elisabeth, the love of his life, whom he often referred to as a “gorgeous dame.” He had to park his fancy cars in back when he came to visit her in the small carless German village where she lived with her mother, a war widow and teacher who worried about “people talking.” He quickly won over everyone with his attempts at speaking German and his down-home charm.
Elisabeth migrated to the US in 1957 and she and Don married in 1958. They had three children: Andrea, Mark, and Christine. The young family moved to Alabama and Florida as Don worked for GE’s Apollo support.
Don was transferred back to Syracuse with GE in 1966. He made some logistical changes to support the needs of his wife and their youngest daughter, Christine, as she went through serious health issues at NIH in Bethesda, then landed up at Eastern Microwave in Syracuse. During his twenty years at Eastern, he helped organize and build a network of microwave towers that carried cable TV and Doppler weather signals across the Northeast. He always pointed out microwave towers on road trips, and could do anything with a few pieces of waveguide.
Don’s first love was his workshop. He was the world’s happiest retiree because it meant he could spend entire days in the basement. In addition to the “Mister Fix-it” pile of repairs and secret Christmas presents he was making, he had a number of projects in various stages of completion. His greatest ventures are an unfinished scale steam train and a steam boat, and several remote control planes that are too beautiful to fly. His proudest achievement is a steam-powered fire engine that won 1st prize at the NY State Fair—and it works! Anyone who came for a dinner party was treated to a display of candle and torch powered engines at the dining room table and a tour of the basement workshop. His talents weren’t limited to metalworking. He made beautiful and functional pieces from wood, including over two hundred church pew book holders for Immaculate Heart of Mary parish, and countless stepstools and cutting boards that have been gifted to many friends and family.
His hobbies and talents were many and long lived, but Parkinson’s Disease and eye problems robbed Don of his favorite activities. He kept his sense of humor, and was a favorite among his many caregivers. He continued fixing things to the very end, if only in his mind. Elisabeth, Andrea, Mark and Chris would like to extend our deepest gratitude to the many people who have helped us. Like Don, who could barely speak during his last days, but always said “Thank you” to his nurses, we say thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Donald is survived by Elisabeth, his wife of 60 years, and their children Andrea (David Cohen), Mark (Myriamne Coffeen, deceased), and Christine; grandchildren Rebecca and Emily Cohen, Mikayla, Theo and Anya Coffeen-Vandeven; his sister, Jaci Lawson of St. Louis, beloved in-laws, nieces and nephews in the US, Canada, and Germany, and many friends.
Don’s Navy service was recognized in October, 2014 on Honor Flight Syracuse Mission #004. He was one of 30 mostly WWII and Korean War veterans who flew on a one-day trip to Washington, D.C., where they visited the various military branch memorials. The day was one of the highlights of his life. Donations can be made to Honor Flight Syracuse or Parkinson’s research.
Honor Flight Syracuse, http://honorflightsyracuse.org or to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, www.michaeljfox.org.