Journalism is a very strange profession. It’s a lot like sitting at a desk with a typewriter on a rock in the middle of an extraordinarily wide river as the inexorable flow of water surrounds you. Since you can’t see a stationary object, you’re never quite sure if it’s the rock or the water that’s moving, and even though you become inured to that insistent flow, you know you’re never in the same river twice.
Most of the time the water moves at a leisurely pace, but there are times you feel like you’re shooting some Class V rapids. The only thing you can count on is the river will always be there, and it rarely freezes over.
But yesterday it did just that.
Upon opening the Chronicle’s morning update, the news of former Kane County Board Member Mike Donahue’s death brought me up short. It’s not that he and I were friends; we were more like bemused political adversaries; but it still struck me harder than I thought it would.
Perhaps it’s that politicians seem to be eternal and that younger folks aren’t supposed to die before you do. Mike was a mere 57. I’m sure that feeling also had something to do with the fact I didn’t even know he was sick.
So, I called County Board member Drew Frasz, a lifelong Genevan as Mike was, to get some perspective on the death of his peer. And it was Drew who asked me to, as he put it, write “a good send off.”
Like it is with everything else, I warned him I wouldn’t sugarcoat it, and when he said he wouldn’t expect anything less, I decided to give it a shot.
The truth is, as a politician, I wasn’t all that fond of Mike. Aside from his amazing vision for the Settler’s Hill project and his penchant for renewable energy, his blind faith in people in power – particularly if they’d grown up with him – was beyond frustrating.
I’ll never understand his steadfast support of Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns and former Kane County Chairman Karen McConnaughay, two of the most corrupt elected officials I’ve ever covered. I always believed he harbored the kind of intelligence and insight that meant he should’ve known better.
And at that 2011 time, Mr. Donahue often employed the kind of massive ego that allowed him to dismiss you without a second thought. Not even Ms. McConnaughay could pull it off quite like he could.
But our “relationship” wasn’t truly adversarial, either. My favorite Mike Donahue memory involves the time he counterattacked me on the local Patch websites. Few people have had the nerve to take me on in print, and far fewer have done it as well as he did.
I basically accused him of contracting an acute case of the “Municipal Mindset Syndrome” and Mike went along with that “diagnosis” by applying the kind of satirical response that would’ve made Jonathon Swift applaud.
And he could actually write, too!
His column – it’s still on the web – makes me laugh out loud to this day. Though when I re-read it this morning, the unintentional prophetic nature of the piece is more than a bit unsettling.
It was only after his single county board term expired that I become a fan of Mike Donahue the man. And that shift came in the form of his personal and financial support of the failed 2014 “Show Kane Cares” referendum, a proposed 0.1 percent tax increase that would’ve better supported our physically and mentally disabled brothers and sisters.
I was working at the County Clerk’s office at the time, and Mike showed up with the Association for Individual Development folks to submit the 33,000 signatures required to get the question on the ballot. The stack of signature sheets, bound with bolts, was more than two feet tall. I had to congratulate both he and them for accomplishing what can only be described as a Herculean task.
Mike risked some Republican friendships by backing that effort, too.
Sadly, that was the last time I saw or spoke with him, but I regularly noted that his ongoing charitable endeavors went well beyond AID, and he continued to be quite the pioneer in the field of solar energy.
Apparently, three years ago, Mike was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. So, of course, Drew and I discussed how he dealt with the prospect of having his body betray him in one of the worst ways I could possibly imagine.
Mike kept up his charitable endeavors, not the least of which was playing a pivotal role in the 2019 Marklund Schools expansion. The Marklund Schools serve children and adults with severe developmental disabilities.
He didn’t let his disease slow him down, either. Mike acquired a specially equipped van to get around and I understand he continued to enjoy his Naples, Florida, boat whenever possible. He kept up with old friends, too. I’m convinced the reason this reporter didn’t know he was sick was because, according to Drew, he refused to complain about it or feel sorry for himself.
I’m not sure I would’ve handled it nearly that well.
To his wife Carol, all I can say is condolences are not enough. There are no other words for it – this sucks! No one should have to endure that horrific disease, and no one should have to endure the pain you and your family have been and are most certainly going through now.
The only possible solace I can find in Mike’s too-short life is, if the ultimate question is, “Did you leave this planet a better place than when you found it” – and I believe that’s the only question – then Mike Donahue can answer it with an unequivocal “Yes!”
Rest in peace Mike.