Every year, Donna King looks forward to opening day of scallop season, when she goes fishing with her husband Wayne.
Her expertise in the culling, opening, cooking and freezing of our local bay scallops is so deep, you’d never know she grew up landlocked in the Midwest, and had never seen a scallop until 2009, when her kids were grown, her parents gone, and she was remarried. It was Wayne who brought her to Shelter Island, and she took to it.
Donna was born in Gary, Indiana in 1943. Her father was a missionary and the family moved to Iowa when she was seven, and then to Wyoming before moving back to Indiana when he contracted tuberculosis. He recovered, and went on to run the Gary Rescue Mission for transient men who needed a place to stay and a meal.
Donna’s was a large, close family; she grew up with five sisters and a brother. “We were so blessed to have parents who were always around and always did things with us,” Donna said. “There was never fussing or fighting in our household.”
At 16, Donna came down with mononucleosis, was hospitalized and out of school for three months, and subsequently dropped out of high school. She went to work, met her first husband, and had two sons, Loren and Kristopher.
When Loren was in high school, he struggled with algebra, and Donna realized she had not finished enough school to be able to help him. She asked her son’s guidance counselor what to do, and the counselor suggested Donna should finish high school herself. Donna found going back to school a pleasure, even the biology lab where she had to dissect a pig. She graduated on the Dean’s List at Portage Adult High School, the same year her 17-year old son graduated.
Not long after, Kristopher was in a motorcycle accident that resulted in the loss of an arm, and a long, but ultimately complete recovery from a brain injury. The accident put a strain on the family. “That was the downhill of my marriage,” Donna said.
Separated from her husband and on her own, Donna worked as a truck driver for Roadway. At the time, there were quite a few female truck drivers. But without separate shower and bathroom facilities for women at truck stops, there was little equality in the workplace. She made do by stopping only once a day, when she could find somebody to watch the restroom door while she was inside.
Donna specialized in driving “triples:” three 46-foot trailers connected by dollies. Often called “wiggle-wagons” because of their unfortunate tendency to become unstable, they required a driver with intelligence and patience. Her regular run involved picking up two trailers in Chicago, and then driving to Reno, Nevada; Salt Lake City, Utah; or Grand Junction, Colorado to pick up a third, which by law, had to be dropped off within a mile of the toll road.
“You have to have a steady hand,” she said, “and you have to pull in behind everyone, because you can’t back up.”
During her years as a truck driver, Donna said she never had an accident or ticket, and came off the road into the office to teach truck driving at the school run by Swift, the company she went to after leaving Roadway in 1998.
Wayne King started driving trucks for Swift in 1999, and met Donna when he came in one day to have his air conditioning fixed. “I was already separated from my husband for quite a while, and when I saw Wayne, my knees just buckled,” she remembered. “He shot that arrow right at me.”
“He was having a bad day,” she said. “He said, ‘You got a minute, I need someone to talk to.’”
At the time, Wayne was in a relationship and Donna, who was still wearing her wedding ring, told Wayne that she was happily married.
Eventually they both came clean, and after they had been dating a while, Wayne brought Donna home to Shelter Island for a Memorial Day Weekend to meet his parents and see what she thought of his hometown.
“I cried when we left.” Donna said. “I fell in love with this place. He told me, ‘Someday I’ll bring you back here to live.’”
Donna and Wayne married in 2004 and in 2009 moved to Shelter Island.
She’s a woman who likes to be fully employed, and on an Island where a less imaginative person might claim there’s nothing to do, she found plenty. In the years when Wayne was fishing, she was by his side, and he claims that she can open clams faster than he can.
Three years ago, Donna was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an auto-immune disease that causes muscle weakness, and can interfere with blinking, swallowing and breathing. Before she was diagnosed, and started taking medication to control her condition, Donna endured several health crises, including one that had her in intensive care for three days.
“The medicine helps,” she said. “I’ve learned to live with it.”
She learned needlework and sewing from her grandmother, and put those skills to work doing sewing and alterations. Currently in possession of nine different types of sewing machines, she can handle any job from blind hemming to putting a heavy-duty zipper in a storm coat. Donna used to monogram, but had to give it up when the cost of parts for her monogramming machine became prohibitive.
“I’ve had sewing machines show up at my door,” she said. “Someone will die and the family brings me all their sewing things.”
She works part-time cooking at the Senior Center and is applying her professional driving skills as the bus driver doing pick-ups and off-Island trips for up to 18 seniors at a time.
“My mother-in-law always said to me, ‘’Donna, you can be as busy as you want to be. There is always something going on in Shelter Island,” she said.“She was right.”
Lightning Round — Donna King
Favorite place on Shelter Island? Shore Road.
Favorite place not on Shelter Island? JOANN Fabrics, the one in Centereach.
When was the last time you were elated? When we got our boat. It’s a 24-footer, it’s got a head in it, and it’s beautiful.
What exasperates you? Pettiness.
When was the last time you were afraid? When I had my first crisis with myasthenia gravis.
What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The first day of scalloping.
Favorite movie or book? ‘Somewhere in Time,’ starring Christopher Reeves.
Favorite food? Mexican.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Giovanna Ketcham.
Most respected elected official? I admired President Kennedy.