Teacher, dramatist, playwright, child advocate, community organizer, environmentalist, wife, mother, grandmother, sister, friend and mentor. Donna Elaine Nylander was all of these. Donna passed away November 28, 2019 in Ellensburg with her family by her side.
She was born to Sidney and Margie Jacobson on March 6, 1930 in Curtiss, Wisconsin and graduated from high school in 1948. She attended Carroll College (now Carroll University) in Waukesha, Wisconsin and University of Wisconsin - White Water, graduating with a degree in education.
Education was an overriding theme in Donna’s life. She began her professional teaching career at Dorn Grade School in Hickory Hills, Illinois. She taught at Hebler Elementary School and was a substitute teacher in Ellensburg for many years. She also taught theater courses at Central Washington University.
While she was in high school, Donna spent her summers working at youth camps and met her future husband James Nylander at a YMCA camp on Phantom Lake in Wisconsin. Their first date was a canoe trip across the lake to get ice cream. Later they both worked at Towering Pines Camp in Eagle River, Wisconsin taking kids on multi-day canoeing and camping trips.
In each other, Jim and Donna found a shared love of nature, education and working with children. They were married at the First Methodist Church of Waukesha, Wisconsin on June 23, 1951. Each year on their anniversary, they would take a canoe trip to commemorate their first date on the water. Donna and Jim were married for 58 years and were known for opening their home to friends new and old. Donna’s holiday table often included a newfound friend who was spontaneously invited to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.
In 1957, James and Donna moved to Ellensburg after Jim accepted a position as head baseball coach and physical education professor at Central Washington State College (now Central Washington University). New to the community, Donna’s zest for life, sweet nature and warmth toward people of all ages quickly endeared her to the small town.
In her early years in Ellensburg, Donna could be seen pedaling her bicycle down country roads and city streets, her long black hair flying behind her, her small tow-headed daughter or young son riding in a seat on the back, fluffy Pomeranian peeking out of the bike basket in front. She loved to camp and hike in the surrounding foothills and canoe on Cooper Lake. Donna was so proud of her new hometown. She couldn’t wait to show new friends and out of town guests her favorite spots.
Donna not only taught school, but swimming at the YMCA and for the American Red Cross. She also organized and choreographed water ballet classes for boys and girls. Many years later she started another water ballet class located in the Holiday Inn Hotel; they performed water shows for the public as the ‘Holiday DolphInns’.
Many Ellensburg children learned the dramatic arts and had their first performance experience in Ellensburg Children’s Musical Theatre, an organization she founded in 1976 with the local Community Schools Program. Donna’s first play was inspired by a camping trip with her family at Wis Wis Forest at Mount Rainier. “Tale of the Wis Wis Forest” focused on environmental conservation and the legend of Bigfoot. In all, she wrote more than 20 plays from 1976 to 2015 with various themes including democracy, friendship, the life of Leonardo DaVinci, and children’s rights. Donna was often ahead of her time, exploring topics that later became socially relevant. In 2001, the City of Ellensburg recognized Donna as an Ellensburg Arts Treasure for her work with Ellensburg Children’s Musical Theatre.
For almost 20 years, Donna was a fixture at the schoolhouse in Frontier Village at the Kittitas County Fair teaching children about history and life in pioneer times. In 2017, the fair board dedicated the No. 11 Schoolhouse to Donna and installed a plaque with her name at the entrance.
A passionate activist for human, animal and environmental causes, Donna collaborated with others to create a lasting memory of Washoe, the first non-human to speak American Sign Language. Washoe and other chimpanzees lived at Central Washington University’s Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. Over several years, the group fundraised and worked on a design to establish a park on Fifth Avenue called the Washoe Friendship Park.
Donna was an avid writer who loved to compose poetry, letters to the editor, and testimony for a good cause. She published The Teddy Bear’s First Christmas in 2010, based on a play she had written for the stage. Pebble Theatre for the Young Performer, created with community members, was published in 2014.
Donna served two terms on the Ellensburg City Council from 1984 to 1990. When some were trying to attract manufacturing to the valley, Donna successfully refocused community attention on attracting tourists to Ellensburg to generate new income and to celebrate its natural beauty.
Donna was a friend to all. If she didn’t know you, she wanted to know you. Her warm smile and encouraging words made even a stranger feel important and special. She inspired us to be the best versions of ourselves and touched us with her joy and passion.
Donna was preceded in death by her loving husband James, her parents, brothers Kenneth and Gerald Jacobson and sister Neoma Dresser.
Donna is survived by her daughter Nomi Pearce (Bill Sweeney), and son James (Marianne) Nylander and granddaughters Analisa (Terry) Six, Olivia Sweeney, Claire Hastings and Ella Cottam and cousin John Grant and his family. She is also survived by Glen Bach, Tami Kinney and other sons, daughters, cousins, sisters and brothers who have joined Donna’s journey, connected by geography, a cause worth fighting, a new idea, travel, birthday lunches, artistic expression or through meaningful conversations over cups of tea and coffee.
A celebration of life and reception will be held at Hal Holmes Community Center, 201 Ruby Street, on Sunday, December 15 at 1 p.m. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Ellensburg Children’s Musical Theater or the James G. Nylander Memorial Fund through the Ellensburg Public Library. For more information contact Josephine Camarillo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Donna so often said about others who have left us, we can now say about her: the world is less beautiful because she no longer lives, but the world is more beautiful because she did live.
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