FOCUS ON HISTORY: Navy captain was link to Amsterdam’s past


Born in Amsterdam in 1927, John Donlon was a link to the history of his family and native city.  His father, Hugh Donlon, was a Recorder newspaper columnist and author of a landmark 1980 Amsterdam history book, “Annals of a Milltown,” and other historical publications.

Hugh Donlon died at age 93 in 1989.  His son, John, died at his Connecticut home at age 95 on December 26, 2022.

John had a remarkable career in the U.S. Navy where he became the captain of nuclear submarines. He and his wife, the former Anita Snyder of Pennsylvania, raised seven children. They had 28 grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren.

John spent his youth living at the Donlon family home on Kimball Street off Guy Park Avenue in Amsterdam during the Great Depression. John’s mother was hospitalized in 1932 at the Montgomery County Tuberculosis Sanatorium atop Swart Hill Road in the town of Amsterdam. 

Hugh Donlon visited her three or four times a week, climbing Swart Hill from the trolley stop on Route 5 as the family had no car. His wife, Anna Frances Nadler Donlon, died in 1938.

John was the second oldest of four brothers.  His three brothers — Charles, Thomas, and Edward — predeceased him. John wrote of his father, “Hugh truly raised his male quartet almost single-handedly.”

Hugh had help from live in caretakers. John wrote in an email, “Retired bachelor and namesake Uncle Hugh McGrail tided us over into the not-so-banner 1938. Uncle Hughie couldn’t boil water when he arrived; he became a great cook in a couple of weeks. Surprisingly, he was marvelous around kids. We had fun every day! But even he faded in health and departed for Schenectady.

“We got a full-time, no-nonsense, great cook, opinionated, stern and grandmotherly Sarah Barton of Hagaman in late 1938. She stayed until 1946.”

From an early age, John felt the call of the sea.  At nine, he became a Sea Scout.

John’s childhood friends included George Tralka, Harold Langley, Donald Blonkowski and Lou Hage. All attended Amsterdam’s Catholic high school, St. Mary’s. Langley had a movie camera and the group made a horror film using City Hall as a stand in for a mental institution.

The group hung out at Rapello’s Pharmacy or Kansas Restaurant downtown on East Main, and Brownie’s hot dog eatery or Wytrwal’s Furniture on Reid Hill.

Young Donlon sang tenor in an acapella group that, according to a friend, could be heard “in occasionally raffish song” under Guy Park Avenue’s streetlights.

Hugh Donlon, who had a side job as a church organist, had started work on a history book called “The Mohawk Valley” in 1932.  He typed the manuscript in a second floor office at the family home. 

In the dedication, Donlon credited his sons, “Whose contribution to this book was undisturbed slumber through night hours while their father worked.”

John Donlon wrote, “Those hours were generally from nine p.m. to two a.m. or later. He invariably arose at seven.” 

John Donlon preserved his father’s Mohawk Valley manuscript written during the 1930s.  Hugh Donlon said the book covered from the Ice Age to 1940.

Many publishers plus Union College and the State were approached but the manuscript remained in John’s possession unpublished until 2015. Writer Dave Northrup edited the manuscript that year with John’s help and oversaw its publication.

Northrup recalled the son’s affection and respect for his father’s efforts in preserving the history of the region dear to both, “In my communication with him about the project, John often said of his father, ‘he was not the smartest man I ever knew, he was the best.’ “

Categories: Opinion

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