This weekend I had the honor of helping my grandfather, Leonard Donin, out to center court at Portland’s Rose Garden arena right before tip-off of the basketball game between University of Oregon and University of Utah. At 96 years old, Grandpa is the oldest living U of O varsity athlete, having lettered in basketball and baseball.
My grandfather was introduced over the public address system as the game’s honorary captain. The entire crowd (which included over thirty family members and friends) came to its feet. As he waved to the adoring crowd, I applauded the man who not only fathered my mother, but also was responsible for the little athletic ability I received.
Grandpa has never been a car guy. He grew up with little money, and only was able to attend college due to being recruited as a three-sport high school star with a full scholarship. He entered University of Oregon at the beginning of the Great Depression, when car ownership was a luxury few had.
As a top-ranked pitcher, my grandfather would sneak off campus and play for barnstorming pro baseball teams under assumed names. For some appearances, he was paid $500 per game, which was the price of a new Ford V8. Even in those days, however, college athletes weren’t allowed to receive compensation, so my grandfather quietly used the money to pay bills. Interestingly, he pitched against some famous names, such as Dom DiMaggio and Babe Didrikson. (I once asked Grandpa if he struck them out, but he claims he forgot the outcome!)
My grandparents didn’t purchase a car until my mother was a teenager. Their first family car was a 1959 Chevrolet Impala sedan, which was still in use when I was young. I remember those crazy fins, and how different the taillights looked next to the mid-sixties Plymouth Valiant that my grandparents bought later.
The Impala lasted until 1977, when it was replaced with an Oldsmobile Omega. My Grandfather referred to it as “Grandma’s car”, despite the fact that I never once saw Grandma drive it. That Omega was retired in 1995, when they inherited the 1987 Chrysler New Yorker my mom no longer needed after she got herself a Cadillac Seville SLS.
My Grandfather drove until 93 years old. While he could still read street signs from a greater distance than I could, we convinced him that the car was superfluous with the shuttle and the Town Car provided by his retirement home.
In his entire life, my grandfather had only owned four vehicles – fewer than the number currently in my garage, but I couldn’t love and respect him more. And as the crowd cheered for this very humble man (who had to be forced to accept the invitation), it just proved that no matter how fun four-wheeled transportation is, there’s much more to life than cars.