There was only patchy snow on the ground Dec. 2, the day Donald Patneaude died.
I think an all-out blizzard would have been more appropriate for a guy who lived to get out in the woods on his cross-country skis. But I’m sure Don was fine with just patchy snow. It didn’t take much to make him happy.
His ski boots leaked, his poles were ancient downhill ski poles, his skis had seen better days, but he was in heaven with those boards strapped to his feet. He didn’t care if the trail had more rocks and mud than snow. Heck, he didn’t even care if there was a trail.
I guess you could call Don a minimalist.
His canoes were all duct-taped; his wardrobe was a hodgepodge of racing T-shirts and things he bought at Salvation Army and church rummage sales. Up until this past year he bragged that he had never spent more than $400 on a car.
While munching on whatever he could scrounge up to eat, he would frequently remind whoever was around, “I never had a meal I didn’t like.”
He preferred sleeping on the ground under the stars to lounging in a bed and didn’t think heat was a necessity. He’d leave the furnace off and fire up a space heater by his couch.
But there was one thing Don did in excess: He gave.
My first memory of him is from when I was a little girl. I was standing in the gas station he owned at the corner of Route 50 and Lake Hill Road, which was affectionately known to many as the “Arco Lounge.” From somewhere in his messy, oil-stained office, Don produced a brand new Barbie doll and handed it to me.
For as many years as I can remember, his voice came over the phone line to wish me a happy birthday. And sometimes there were other gifts — a bouquet of lilacs from the bush in his yard, displayed in an old Arizona Iced Tea bottle; a canoe ride up the Mohawk River to The Hen House restaurant in Glenville for lunch; a bunch of partially-deflated balloons he’d saved from somebody else’s party and a great grin to go with them.
He never married or had kids, but he was “Uncle Donald” to relatives and non-relatives alike.
Wherever help was needed, Uncle Don was there.
When floodwaters swamped his hamlet of Rotterdam Junction in 2011, he gathered up tools and headed downtown to shovel out mud, rip out insulation and sweep up debris. He did that every day for months, chiding fellow helpers for stopping to eat lunch or for calling it quits before the sun went down.
And when Fort Plain was flooded, he went there to help, too.
Don was a weekly fixture at the Schenectady Inner City Ministry Food Pantry for the past 11 years, passing out produce to the hungry and recruiting many others to join the cause — including me.
With his bushy beard, eclectic wardrobe and gruff manner, Don seemed more like he belonged in the woods than behind the counter at a food pantry, but his heart made him perfect for the job. He’d come in early and stay as long as he was needed. The only time he’d leave early was when he had to get over to the Salvation Army soup kitchen in time to serve lunch there.
Often, after closing time, he’d tote a load of extra bread up to the Summit Towers apartment complex to offer to hungry residents.
Donald was an athlete. His bike, skis, canoe and feet were his favored modes of transportation. He knew nearby forests, mountains and waterways by heart. He raced 40 consecutive Tenandeho Canoe Association Whitewater Derbies and raced canoes with the Schenectady Wintersports Club-Northern New York Paddlers. When he wasn’t competing, he was helping. He was a volunteer for the Burnt Hills Apple Run 5K for 19 straight years and the Charlton 5K for 17 straight years.
Don was a daily communicant of St. Margaret of Cortona Church in Rotterdam Junction and served as head usher and greeter.
He was a fixture at work weekends at the Schenectady Wintersports Club’s clubhouse in Waterbury Center, Vt.
He checked on elderly widows who lived near his home and jokingly called them his girlfriends.
He carried wood to my porch when he saw my woodpile was low.
He brought presents to my children.
Many lives touched
Since Don died, stories have poured in from many people whose lives he touched. There are plenty of tales about his sense of humor, his encyclopedic memory and his athletic accomplishments, but there are more still about his generosity and subtle acts of kindness.
“He was thoughtful in the most surprising ways, beneath that often gruff exterior,” said Mary-Lou Armstrong, who was introduced to her husband, Kraig, by Don. “On our 10th anniversary, he took us out to dinner and brought along a chocolate favor [from our wedding] he had kept in his freezer all that time.”
“This world has lost a beautiful, selfless human being,” said neighbor Chris Gallo. “I would see Don riding his bicycle or skiing in our community and always wonder, ‘Who is this man?’ Then, after the flood struck our community, I got to know just who this man was — an amazing man who cares deeply about other human beings. I believe that’s what all people should aspire to be. Don seemed to do this effortlessly.”
“He was offered a lot of money for his gas station two or three times, and he turned it down because he didn’t want his tenant put out of business,” recalled Ron Tersigni, a friend since childhood who also happens to be my dad.
“Don knew the names of all his friends’ children, let alone their birthdays,” said longtime friend Joan Henry.
Canoeist Priscilla Reinertsen called Don a skilled down-river paddler and an equally skilled supporter.
“He’d paddle like hell in a race, while wishing everyone else a safe line through the tricky water,” she said. “With his stiff neck and ever-ready smile, he was quite disarming.”
Bob Donahue, an employee at the SICM food pantry, shared this memory: “Don was my instant mentor when I started volunteering at the food pantry eight short years ago. We worked together giving out produce in cramped quarters and told each other stories. Don had a way of delivering a punchline that I will forever cherish.
“He owned every second of his generous life and I’m blessed to have known him.”
Kelly de la Rocha is a Gazette reporter. You can reach her at 395-3040 or firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @KellydelaRocha.