In Memoriam: Don Meagher, first principal of Sutter Elementary in Antioch, passes at 93

By Donna Swenson, daughter

In Dad’s dying days his appreciation for those around him was accentuated.  This very independent man needed now to depend more on the help of others, especially his wife Katy.  He became more deliberate in his “thank you” and “please.”  A sense of humor sprinkled their tasks of everyday life which had become more difficult with the challenges of disease and a tired body.  It was a privilege to witness this example of love aging well.

During his last week at home I came into the house one afternoon . I found them both asleep on opposite ends of the couch , arms reaching across, holding hands.  It is an image so sweet, speaking clearly of mutual love and respect.  It is an image  I carry in my heart.  Thank you Katy for  your ready laughter, generous spirit, your appreciation and love of dad.  We know this love was a gift for both of you to share “till death do you part.”

Mural of the old Antioch telephone office, depicting Don (in brown suit) and Helen (in blue and white) Meagher picking up their first phone.

Mural of the old Antioch telephone office, on the building at the corner of West 4th and G Streets, in downtown Antioch, depicting Don (in brown suit) and Helen (in blue and white) Meagher picking up their first phone.

Donald James Meager came into this world December 6 , 1921 at St. Luke’s hospital in San Francisco. He was the first child of Theresa Whitfield and James Meagher.  He was to become the older brother of Gerald, James and Mary.  Grandma Whitfield had a ranch in Mission San Jose.  This is where he and his brothers and sister spent many days exploring the orchards, sleeping on the porch of the big ranch house and playing in the barn with their cousins.  His dad and uncles owned a garage in the Mission District of the city. This business thrived and declined according to the economy of the times.  Growing up,  the family moved a lot living in the city, living in at least 10 homes  before dad was 18. His father died at 50, leaving Granny a widow at 46 with four children.   Dad, at 18, became the shoulder to lean on for his mother and 12 year old his sister, Mary. As they followed their father’s body down the aisle of St. James church Dad lovingly took his young sister’s hand assuring her ‘it would be all right.”

He graduated from Polytechnic High School in 1940, not sure what he was going to do with his life.  He had a few odd jobs.  Then World War II  began. He enlisted in the United States Coast Guard serving in the South Pacific on LST 830, sending money home to help his mother.    Following the war he came home  went to college at San Francisco State on the GI Bill. He took  education classes, ran track and dated girls.  He met our mother,  Helen Buckley on campus and fell in love.  They were married in June of 1948 at St. James church on Guerrero Street. They lived on campus in married student housing where all the fun was happening with other Veterans and their young wives.  There they met life long friends in Henry and Mary Jean Watty.

They didn’t waste any time starting a family. Their first child Donna Theresa was born the following year in August 1949.  Mom and Dad decided to leave the foggy city taking a teaching job up in sunny Sonoma county where they lived in a little house on Harold Way in Healdsburg.  He taught at Windsor Elementary School earning $2,500 a year.  Fourteen months later along came Christopher James. The very persuasive Henry Watty was teaching in Antioch by then where they were paying teachers a bit more, ann extra $500 a year. So Mom and Dad packed up their two little ones and bought a house on Dennis Drive in Antioch.  In the next six years Patricia Helen and Susanna completed the Meagher family.

Dad began a very successful career in education in this small town. He earned his Masters Degree in Education in 1956 and held teaching credentials for Elementary and Secondary Education.

The professional accomplishment he was most proud of was principal of Sutter Elementary School for 20 years.  It was an innovative school for its time, the 1970’s.  Pod shaped buildings, hand picked teachers, following the principles the education gurus of the time, William Glasser and Thomas Harris, of “I’m Ok, You’re Ok” fame.  He enjoyed a good relationship with the parent/teacher community that worked together to raise funds for the school.

Dad’s acting debut during this time was as Linus, in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.” in a parent, staff production.  He retired in 1983.  The library of the school is named in his honor and each year a new group of students learns how to pronounce Meagher correctly.

He and mom enjoyed those early years of retirement traveling and visiting grandchildren.  Dad eventually went back to continue his teaching career at the Independent High School in Brentwood for 14 years.  He reconnected with those LST 830 men , organizing a reunion in Branson, Missouri.   Then Mom died suddenly in 1997, leaving Dad to define his own, next chapter.  As our family left Dad, after a week together of shared shock and grief, he sat us down at the kitchen table.   He told us that life had been great with Mom but he was ready  and excited to see what the future would bring. He sold the family home and moved to Summerset, a setting not unlike that at San Francisco State married-student housing so many years before.  He began an active social life with new found friends, playing bocce, taking trips with Elder Hostel, and taking up golf.  The chapter began.

He found a loving companion and wife, to enjoy the last 14 years of his life.  He had met Kathleen Welch Smith at a reunion of his Coast Guard buddies when he was there with mom.  Mom came home from that first reunion with stories of meeting Katy and enjoying her company. The second reunion Dad went alone.  A friendship began with Katy and he fell in love again.  They enjoyed an active life together. He became a mentor to her six children and many grandchildren who live in the mid west.  During these years they traveled, enjoyed the activities and friendship in this community, played bocce and golf together with Dad making a hole in one at 90.

Dad encouraged our family legacy of educators.  His mother was a teacher along with his brother Jimmy and sister Mary.  Many of his cousins were teachers and nieces and nephews.  All of his children became teachers, Chris worked in Special Education, Sue is a speech therapist, while Donna and Patricia are elementary teachers.  Several grandchildren are continuing this important work.

He died peacefully on Sunday, October 25, completing an accomplished, rich, full life of 93 years.  His family kept vigil, reminding one another of the memories we shared, the stories we won’t forget, and the love we have for him.  We hold this treasure trove in our hearts and will pass these on to those who carry on our family story.

Donations in his name can be made to purchase books for the Donald J. Meagher Library at Sutter Elementary School, 3410 Longview Road, Antioch, California, 94509 .

Publisher’s Note: A service was held for Don Meagher on October 30 at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Brentwood. Don and his first wife, Helen will be forever enshrined as part of the mural on the side of the building at the corner of West 4th and G Streets in downtown Antioch, depicting the old telephone office, including Don and Helen picking up their first phone. According to former Antioch Councilwoman Elizabeth Rimbault, Don served on the Board of Directors of the Antioch Historical Society. Together they contributed funds, time and effort to create the first “Brides Room” in the museum in memory of Helen and Rimbault’s mother, Velma Jennings (First Madd Hatter’s Hat Shop), including painting, hanging curtains and creating displays.

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Telephone office mural Meagher

One Comment to “In Memoriam: Don Meagher, first principal of Sutter Elementary in Antioch, passes at 93”

  1. Christine Smith says:

    Thank you for publishing this. My Grandfather was quite the incredible man and will always be loved and remembered. And thank you for including the mural with he and my Grandmother. Beautiful!

    Christine Smith (daughter of Pat Meagher-Dufresne, Don and Helen’s middle daughter)

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