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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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October 19, 2020

9/18/2020 7:29:00 AM
Donald H. Austin

Donald H. Austin, who grew up in Rhinelander and returned every summer, passed away on April 29, 2020, after a brief struggle with COVID-19. He was born on Christmas Day, 1925, in Indianapolis, Ind., to Ralph Vernon Austin and Helen Mayo Austin. His father, a Disciples of Christ minister who served a small church north of downtown, lost his position after he objected to a Klan-affiliated initiative to declare the local neighborhood an all-white area.

The family, with Donald and older brother David, then moved to Wisconsin. Initially, the family camped in a lean-to, before Ralph took on a series of positions in Congregational churches in Richland Center, Barneveld, and Spring Valley, before moving to Rhinelander in 1937. On Donald's 13th birthday, while his father was making a pastoral Christmas call on a widow in a house on Upper Boom Lake, Donald noticed an island with an abandoned cabin on it and persuaded Ralph to tromp across the ice to explore it. After inquiries, Ralph obtained use of the island from the bank that owned it, and a few years later, bought it. Donald, who grew up from an early age working with his hands, built a small cabin on the island while in high school. He also went to state finals in debate in 1943.

After graduating from Rhinelander High School in 1944, he went into the U.S. Army, where he trained as an X-ray technician. He arrived in Okinawa just after Japan had surrendered, while bunkers were still smoking. He was then stationed in hospitals in downtown Tokyo and in a Japanese mountain town. In 1946, after an honorable discharge, his parents gave him the island. He entered Oberlin College that fall on the GI Bill, housed in a gymnasium for his first semester with other returning GIs.

After graduating, he decided on a career in elementary education. After obtaining master's degrees from the Graduate Teachers' College in Winnetka, Ill., and Northwestern University, he taught in Chicago-area schools. He married the former Marilyn Bedwell in 1959 and soon moved to Park Forest, Ill. to serve as an elementary school principal. Son Andrew was born in 1960 and daughter Sarah followed two years later. He was active in fair housing, desegregation, and anti-Vietnam War movements in the 1960s and 1970s. After the mob torched an African-American orthopedist's home in 1962, he served as a moderator in community discussions on how to move peaceful integration forward. He was deeply involved in planning the desegregation of local schools in 1972.

In 1983, he divorced and retired as a principal. After spending some time in Evanston, Ill., he moved to Wisconsin, eventually settling in Wauwatosa with Joanne Lehman. During the 1990s, he founded Highwind Futons, which he ran for several years in Milwaukee. He served on the board of non-profits, including Growing Power, which taught intensive market gardening to inner city youth. He was named Volunteer of Year there after guiding the construction of many greenhouses in the early 2000s. With others at the Milwaukee Quaker Meeting, he helped create the Peace Learning Center, which teaches grade schoolers skills in conflict resolution. He also participated enthusiastically in the Minnesota Men's Group initiated by poet Robert Bly.

Donald returned to his Rhinelander island each summer and enjoyed hosting others in the North Woods. Favorite activities included sailing on Upper Boom Lake, renovating roofs, and teaching children to fish and canoe. In 2010, he fell down basement steps and suffered a serious head injury. His cat, Charlie, alerted his partner Joanne, saving his life. After a half year of rehabilitation, he made a remarkable recovery. In September 2019, he entered the memory care program at the Wauwatosa Lutheran Home. He is survived by Joanne Lehman, as well as by son Andrew (Andrea) and daughter Sarah.

Don Austin had abiding affection for Wisconsin frozen custard, power tools, sheet rock screws, art projects, as well as cats and community. Donations in his memory to the Milwaukee Peace Learning Center would be gratefully received.

A memorial service will be held when it becomes safe to do so.

Reader Comments

Posted: Saturday, September 19, 2020
Article comment by: Rick Penn

Condolences to the family.

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