“No wonder I’m so tired,” Donna Culver chuckled.
She raised 10 children, completed a community degree a few courses at a time over eight years, seldom was out of work and is first to volunteer with the need arises.
Wednesday she will celebrate her 80th birthday.
She will be honored at a party from 2 to 4 this afternoon at the community building in Riverside Park. It was to have been a surprise, but it’s hard to keep something like that under wraps with 10 children, 19 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.
“I’ve had a good life,” Culver said, with “pretty good health. I had diphtheria when I was 12 and colon cancer at 45,” but she has had no lasting effects. She lives alone and keeps on the go, including still working with the Red Cross.
In the public eye, Culver is the face of the Red Cross. She has been involved with its humanitarian efforts since the early 1990s.
“Dorothy Sherwood (a friend and another of Iola’s premier volunteer activists) went to California in the early 1990s to help with an earthquake,” Culver recalled. “I thought if she can do it, so can I.”
Culver’s first assignment of consequence was in 1995 to St. Thomas, an island in the Caribbean that had been hit by Hurricane Marilyn.
She had to steel herself a bit before leaving Iola: “I wasn’t used to flying.”
On St. Thomas, Culver spent three weeks interviewing victims and writing vouchers so they could get clothing and shoes.
“We had no (running) water and no electricity,” she said, and communications was limited with cell phones then being a novelty of little use outside of modern, populated areas.
Over the next several years, Culver got used to flying. She went on 26 national assignments, with 16 of them taking her away from home for two weeks or more.
As her experiences mounted, Culver moved from interviews to family services supervision.
When the 2007 flood covered much of south Iola, Culver was the officer in charge of the Iola Red Cross service center for two weeks.
She missed helping with recovery from another disaster that year. She was in Dallas with daughter Julie when the tornado hit Greensburg.
She no longer accepts lengthy deployments away from Iola.
“My mind wishes to go, but my body won’t let me,” Culver said.
CULVER WAS born in rural Woodson County and attended a one-room school near Kalida.
Noting how times have changed, Culver told about riding a horse to school, a mile from her home, and other times when at age 6 she and her brother, a grade ahead, would hike through timber and cross a creek to get to school.
“Think about that,” she said. “You wouldn’t think about having a six-year-old walk a mile through timber to school today. And when the creek was up, my brother would walk across on a log and I’d crawl.”
Those were different times in other ways.
Her father would gather family around in the evening and “tell us stories. We had a radio and sometimes would listen to the Lone Ranger,” but mostly entertainment consisted of conversations and it often went beyond family.
“Everyone had a story to tell and I loved to listen to the old people talk,” Culver said, which prompted her to write down recollections of her life in a memory book, for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Culver graduated from Yates Center High in 1950. She moved to Wichita, attended business school and worked for an investment company before marrying J.E. Culver in 1952. They returned to Yates Center.
“He worked for the telephone company and I settled in being a housewife” — and having babies. “We had four children in Yates Center, three in Pittsburg and three in Iola, after moving here in 1960,” Culver said.
By 1966 she was working in the kitchen at Allen County Hospital and getting her first dose of volunteerism, as a member of the Southeast Kansas Community Action Program board. When a Head Start program started, she helped out as an aide.
An 11-year stint at Arbuckle Motors ensued. She kept books, sold parts and then cars after becoming the first licensed female car salesperson in Iola. At the same time, Culver decided she needed more education.
“I was the first non-traditional student at Allen County, and took classes over eight years to get my degree.”
Culver was hired by the college, as a secretary and then to head the single homemaker program. Her husband died the year before she retired from ACC in 1993.
Culver also found time to develop a love for bowling, starting in league competition in 1970. She bowls in two leagues today.
IN ADDITION to the Red Cross, Culver is involved with Allen County Crime Stoppers; has been an American Legion Auxiliary member for 20 years and is its president; skipped last year, but has helped with Relay for Life all other years; was a mentor at Jefferson Elementary School for years; volunteers at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center; and delivers meals.
“I also work on election boards, quilt and deliver communion to homebound members of St. John’s Catholic Church,” she said.
Every now and then, Culver tries “to hang up my hat with a lot of things, but then I say, ‘I can do that,’ and just keep going.”
Thinking back to her youth when she listened to her father and others perpetuate family history, Culver fears that is becoming a lost art.
“Who’s going to tell the stories now,” she said. “Kids today are all about TV and electronic games. They don’t know anything about the past.”
But, her family has the advantage of Culver’s book of memories — and there’s more to come. She still has things to do and stories to tell.