Sept. 16, 2014
Duluth News Tribune
Above 'average guy' left his mark
By Rick Lubbers
If you ever channel surfed to Duluth's public-access TV channels in the past 16 years or so, you knew Jonny D.
A self-proclaimed "average guy," Jon Donahue crafted a long-running sports talk show around that premise - "The Average Guys." Donahue and co-host Kenny Kalligher kibitzed about all things sports and developed a Twin Ports following in the process.
But for as much asDonahue embraced the word "average," most people who knew him would argue that Jonny D was anything but average.
The lifelong Duluthian left an indelible mark on his family, friends and acquaintances before passing away late Saturday night following a two-year battle with cancer. He was only 49 years old.
Donahue was one of the first people I met when I moved here in the late '90s, when all I knew about Duluth was that it was north of the Twin Cities and overlooked a giant freshwater lake. He welcomed a transplant into his community like an old friend blowing into town for a visit.
Forging and maintaining friendships is difficult for most of us - especially men - but Donahue could build a bond with just a handshake, a smile and an encouraging word or two. His ever-present enthusiasm spread to everyone around him.
No matter how much time passed between meetings, our conversations invariably returned to a pair of his favorite topics : Baseball and music.
He wasn't a Detroit Tigers fan, per se, but he loved baseball with a passion and we often chatted about the 1984 World Series champion Tigers and their iconic players that I lionized as a youngster - Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker.
When the conversation drifted to music, the Canadian power trio Rush dominated the discussion. It's impossible for me to hear Rush tunes such as "Spirit of Radio," "Tom Sawyer," "Fly By Night" or "Limelight " without thinking of Jonny D.
But Donahue will be remembered for much more than just his love of music, sports and "The Average Guys," which debuted on PACT-TV on Christmas Day 1998. Episode No. 575 - Donahue's final episode - was taped on Aug. 22, 2013.
He held firmly to a strong Christian faith and was a devoted husband and father, as well as a fixture in the Piedmont Heights community where his weekend campfires were a favorite gathering place. He was a member of the city's Alcohol, Gambling and Tobacco Commission and even ran for mayor of Duluth and the Duluth School Board.
He helped his wife, Lisa, through her own battle with cancer and even threw a party in July 2012 to mark the five-year anniversary of her remission from the disease.
A month later, it was Lisa providing the loving care for her husband, who was struck with gliosarcoma, a cancer of the brain, and a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body during the six-hour surgery in which doctors removed a softball-sized tumor from the right side of his brain.
But as destructive as the cancer was, it couldn't curb his love of life. His concernswere chiefly focused on his wife and school-age children - Alyssa, Jacob and Tyler.
"I was either going to let the cancer control me, or I was going to take control of the situation," Donahue told the News Tribune later that year. "I was not going to live in fear, I was just going to make the most of the time Ihave - however long that may be - and just enjoy every moment."
Donahue did just that. He fought back his cancer with vigor and enjoyed his own period of remission and improved mobility. The Duluth community rallied around him, turning out in droves toa benefit hosted by Mr. D's.
Sadly, that remission was brief. The cancer eventually returned and did not let go.
But the lessons Donahue taught so many people during his courageous battle will remain with them:
That faith can carry families and friends through difficult times, no matter the outcome.
That life is short, and that every day should be greeted witha smile, much laughter and eyes open to every possibility.
That friendships are priceless and one of life's purest joys.
That humbleness doesn't always hide someone's greatness.
Jonny D was anything but average.
To anyone who met him, that word carried a much different definition.