Life Story / Obituary
He had so much love inside him.
Born on August 25, 1930, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Donald Peter Wierenga was the sixth child of Peter and Celia (DeKorne) Wierenga. His father’s integrity and woodworking skills and his mother’s gentleness and early death imprinted Don with a passionate talent for building things and relationships -- and with a seemingly insatiable desire to give and receive love.
A man of tremendous physical strength and vitality, he played every sport available to him at school and was proud to be a member of Union High School’s 1949 State Championship football team. As an adult, he was an avid golfer and runner, participating in marathons and other competitive events well into his 60s. After retirement, he developed a passion for tennis and played regularly with Texas friends in the winter and Michigan friends in the summer -- and with his grandsons where- and whenever he could.
Don graduated from Hope College in 1953 and married Virginia Ann Raper of Grand Rapids on June 19 of that year. He was serving in the Armed Forces, stationed in Panama, when their first daughter, Debra, was born. He returned to Grand Rapids and a teaching job at Fairview School in 1955, and was teaching algebra at Harrison Park High School when daughter Lucinda joined the family. Shortly after the birth of Susan in 1960, he was appointed to the first of several administrative positions in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, and later in the Jenison school system, where he retired as principal of Sandy Hill Elementary School in 1987.
He loved children. If there was a baby in the vicinity, it was soon in his arms. At family reunions he was more likely to be found playing move-up-peggy with his nieces and nephews than discoursing on business and politics with his fellow adults. As a teacher and principal and father and grandfather, he was a great champion of kids and their right to be heard and respected. Those who knew Don best know that in many ways he never really stopped being a kid himself.
He loved animals. Fifty years after it happened he still spoke about the death of his boyhood boxer, Kim, with tears in his voice. His relationship with Keeper, a beautiful and difficult malamute was as devoted and exclusive as cross-species love gets. He lavished attention and affection on all his daughters’ pets and his presence was a source of wild joy for every dog who knew him, including, most recently, an intense Scottish terrier named Duffy.
He loved to work with his hands. He built houses and playhouses and dog houses, doll beds and dorm beds, toy boxes and jewelry boxes, lamps and garden walls and sandcastles and ponds and picnic tables and fire pits and rocking horses and baby cradles and planters and decks and benches and beach stairs and beaches. He built closets for Barbie Dolls and castles for Pikachus. When he was 77 years old and volunteering at a compound for AIDs orphans in Kenya, he built a coffin for a child.
He loved nature. He combed beaches and dunes and shallows for driftwood and rocks and shells to use in his creations. He carried smooth stones small pieces of weathered wood in his pockets and gave his most beautiful finds to anyone who admired them. He loved Glen Lake and Lake Michigan and the Gulf and Bay that surround South Padre Island. He watched every sunset the weather allowed him and photographed thousands. He loved thunderstorms and blizzards and big winds blowing in across the lake. He loved cattails and pansies and tomato plants and spent the last third of his life doggedly tending and fighting for the right to life of a black locust tree his daughter planted as a seedling behind the cottage at Glen Lake.
He loved family. He spent many years tracking the genealogy of his parents and collecting stories from his aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters. He brought off a huge DeKorne family reunion in 2002 and relished his contact with relatives near and far. He and Ginny created wonderful holiday traditions and travel experiences for their daughters and grandsons, and Don photographed them all. He extended his definition of “immediate family” to include his daughters’ husbands and partners and ex-husbands and friends (and the husbands and partners and ex-husbands of friends) and and was “Boppy” to a generation of school kids and teenagers who hung out with his grandsons.
He loved to help. He drove across the state to retrieve a daughter’s contact lens from a dormitory drain pipe. He drove across the country to help hurricane victims rebuild their homes. He flew across the world to help a fledgling community for children and parents of AIDs casualties by building desks and chairs and beds. He rode in ambulances with people who were hurt, sat by the deathbed of a woman whose husband had beaten her -- and then visited that husband in prison when no one else would.
He was building something at the home of one his beloved daughters when he died, falling with his tool belt around his waist, a pencil in his hand, and the blue chalk mark of a plumb line around his finger: full of purpose, devotion, and love to the very last second of his life.