Don Woods

Don Woods

Tucked into one of the apartments in Holiday Heights lives one of the nicest, most interesting men I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. On a chilly December afternoon in 2015, I sat down with Don and his daughter, Margi Hay, to become better acquainted with this month's Spotlight Senior.

Donald Lewis Woods was born at home in Vanderbilt, Michigan on April 9, 1930 and was the second of four children. When he was just four years old, his father suddenly passed away, leaving his young mother to face an uncertain future. She ultimately made the difficult decision to split up her small family and sent the children in pairs to her sister and brother to raise. Don and Dorothy, the two middle siblings, moved to Lewiston, Michigan to live with Aunt Leota and her husband, Jack, while the oldest and youngest kids stayed in Vanderbilt to live with Uncle Clark and Aunt Bee. Unfortunately, distance played a huge role in keeping the family separated from each other and they ultimately lost touch with each other for many years.

Don's early years of education were spent in Lewiston, Michigan. In 1948, he graduated from high school in Atlanta, Michigan. After receiving his diploma, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Ft. Knox, Kentucky for basic training. He was posted with the Airborne Infantry and stationed at Camp Zama, the U.S. Army Garrison Command station in Japan for three years. Following the completion of that assignment, he spent 13 months in Korea, before returning to the States where Don spent a short period of time as a clerk at Ft. Custer, Michigan. By 1956, Don was out of the Army but realized his military career wasn't yet over. The pay was good and the opportunities for travel and advancement could not be matched elsewhere, so he joined the U.S. Air Force and began working in personnel. He spent three years at Scott Air Force Base in St Louis, Missouri and after many moves, arrived at his final duty station, Eielson AFB, in June of 1968. Ten years later, after 26 years of cumulative service to his country, Don retired from the Air Force. The next five years was spent on the pipeline as Camp Manager for Pump Stations #4, #9 and #10. After that work ended, he became a Civil Service employee on Eielson at the snow barn for the next 24 years, before experiencing his third and final retirement.

Along the way, Don and his first wife had two sons, Michael and George, and two daughters, Patty and Lynda. This union lasted many years until he met the love of his life, Bobbi Neville, in Great Falls, Montana where he was stationed with the U.S. Air Force. She was the complete package and came with "extras," namely children Margaret, Ted and Tom. The couple and their combined household of kids shared many happy times together and they continue to be a source of pride for Don. Michael, Ted and Margi live nearby in this area, and George, Lynda and Patty reside elsewhere. Tom tragically passed away in 1998, however, his surviving wife, Andrea Neville-McGill and son, Michael Thomas Neville, who is in college on a football scholarship out of state, have continued to maintain close ties with Don. Andrea and her husband and Michael Thomas' step-dad, Roger, live in Fairbanks.

Following their arrival at Eielson AFB in June of 1968, and confronted with only limited available base housing, Don began looking for a place to purchase that was large enough to be comfortable for his family yet close enough to Eielson to be convenient to work and to school for the children. Later that same summer, Don found this home in Salcha, and he, Bobbi and Mike settled in for what they believed would be the long haul. Bobbi's kids arrived the following year. Long after Bobbi's passing in 1994, and after 27 years of marriage, Don remained.

After 42 years as a Salcha resident, some set-backs in his health prompted Don to sell his house in 2013 and relocate to Holiday Heights in North Pole where he could be closer to family and medical resources. Although he admits apartment living is very convenient, he misses cutting his own firewood and also the many friends and neighbors he'd grown to love as family in Salcha. Forever the Good Host, Don keeps his door open and welcomes company for visits almost anytime. His refrigerator is also well stocked.

Comfortable in the woods, Don has done his fair share of trapping-"mostly beaver, but sometimes loose cats and dogs," and always kept a freezer full of moose, caribou and fish. He also keeps a sharp eye out for diamond willow, which he fashions into back-scratchers, hiking sticks and canes. His bucket list is short. He would love to go moose hunting and halibut fishing again. Since, at the time of this writing, he was particularly looking forward to Christmas, one can only wonder what Santa may have up his sleeve or in his stocking, especially for Don?

Don joined Santa's Seniors in 2012 and I was told by several of his former neighbors he and Bobbi were active bowlers on Eielson, grew and shared produce from a fantastic garden each summer, baked many loaves of delicious Monkey Bread for the patrons of the Snowshoe Inn to enjoy, worked several years as an Election Registrar at Salcha Elementary and even now, continues to remember the birthdays of old friends. Reportedly, many winter evenings were spent playing Pinochle with friends and warming gym benches with neighbors. To quote: "Don is a wonderful man, a good friend and the BEST neighbor who can always be counted on to lend a hand whenever it is needed."

While biding my time in the community room of Holiday Heights, I also learned Don is an excellent baker and cook who generously shares his culinary talents. Although his palate favors wild game and meat, his dream meal would nevertheless consist of a good steak, halibut and his favorite dessert, carrot cake. A meal of this caliber deserves a fine beverage, and Don's choice would naturally turn to his own concoctions, which are described more fully below. His invited guests would be Pat and Margi, presumably with the good intent to help him enjoy this feast and not solely for the purpose of clean-up!

When a long-time friend, got wind of this interview, I was urged to ask Don about his Salcha Punch and the story of the buffalo horns. Never one to shy away from a good story lead, I probed Don for details. It turns out Don and Bobbi had quite a reputation for their homebrew and rhubarb and blueberry wine. Batches of both were produced on a nearly continuous basis in quarts and bottles with only minimal time allowed for fermentation. These famous beverages were shared and tremendously enjoyed by multitudes of area residents. Another neighbor waxes nostalgically about the Kalua and Irish Cream laced hot chocolate that was consumed by the gallons around ice fishing holes and on snow machine trips to local taverns.

Some years ago, Don and Bobbi began considering the future of certain family treasures and which of their several children would be the recipients. Mounted above their fireplace was a particularly outstanding set of buffalo horns. Not wanting the kids to argue and fight among themselves after they were gone, they decided to begin gifting these prized possessions to their kids. As it turned out, NOT ONE of the seven offspring wanted them! It was reported, by a very reliable source, that the next time they drove out to visit Don and Bobbi, the first thing that caught their eyes was the sight of those beloved buffalo horns……outside on the garage. This story does, however, have a happy ending. One of their grandsons, who lives in Joplin, MO, is now the proud owner of the horns. To continue the saga, after receiving no takers on a rather large bearskin, daughter Patty finally took it for display in her rather large Missouri home.

Don's favorite time of year is spring and he described his Perfect Day as it being sunny, he'd be sitting alone, high on a hill overlooking the Salcha River with wildflowers in full bloom all around him. He would just be taking it easy, no doubt filled with memories and gratitude for the life he has lived, the people he has loved and lost and the things he wishes to accomplish or pass on to others.

Don is a gentle man whose kindness has touched many. From picking up damsels in distress from the side of the highway, creating a loving home for children not born of his flesh and sponsoring a military family new to Alaska, he continues to be a true friend who shares a wealth of memories and laughter. He is also blessed with fearlessness and doesn't hesitate to try new things or learn new lessons. We can all benefit from spending some time with him.

When I asked Don to use three words or phrases to describe himself he hesitated, so I asked Margi to help me with this. She said her Dad was "loyal, had a dry sense of humor and was the very best thing that had ever happened to her family. He was and is a blessing."

The One True Thing he shared with me was: "I can't believe the number of good friends who take good care of me." Truthfully, I think they're just returning the favor!

Note: On January 6, 2016, Don Woods left the surly bonds of this earth and slipped into the arms of his beloved, Bobbi. He will be greatly missed.

Interview and Photo by Francie Cork

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