John M. Donahue was one of the kindest people to grace San Antonio. His death on Thursday, Sept. 25 — unexpected and stunning — has left a large hole in the city’s soul. He was 75.
A former Maryknoll priest and a longtime professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University, John, as befitted his two professions, was a deeply thoughtful man. He did not just care about the world around him, but wanted to repair its wounds, to lessen its pain, to re-right its course.
Step one was to stop and listen. Listen closely, mindfully, to hear what those with whom he was in conversation were saying —and what they had left unsaid. To tease out the meaning of their words, while reading their body language, and thereby gaining a richer feel for their needs; whether these were expressed, felt, or inchoate. Like those to whom John ministered before and after his time at Trinity, my colleagues and I felt affirmed and valued whenever we worked with him on committees, sat with him over a cup of coffee, or perhaps indulged in something with a bit stronger kick.
John’s scholarship was every bit as deliberate, insightful, and caring. It is hardly a coincidence that amid the internal disruptions and external attacks upending Nicaragua in the 1980s, he focused on its health care system and those in greatest need of its services. At a time of war, he came in peace.
His actions were as pacific in the late 1990s when San Antonio erupted in conflict over water. Searching for a way forward, John began to probe the nature of our contention in a series of essays that did much to reveal the varied sources of our anxieties. Each followed John’s by-now patented approach: he observed, absorbed, and reflected.
In 1996, Bob Ross, in his role as a city council representative, expedited this process by inviting John to sit in on a critical set of discussions between water officials, politicians, environmentalists, and some of the power elite. Out of John’s observations emerged a chapter that I had the good fortune to edit for a book on San Antonio’s environmental history: in “Sitting Down at the Table: Mediation and Resolution of Water Conflicts,” he argued persuasively that if we envisioned water as a commons, a shared resource, we could mitigate the tensions that long roiled the community. His goal, announced in venues public and professional, was to stimulate a sustained conversation about how to build a more water-wise, inclusive, and equitable civil society.
A healer and a gracious force for good, John Donahue was one of a kind.
A memorial service for John was held Monday evening at the Marguerite Parker Chapel at Trinity University. Memorials may be made in the name of Rev. Dr. John M. Donohue to Covenant Presbyterian Church, 211 Roleto Dr., San Antonio, TX 78213, where he served as a Ruling Elder.
*Featured/top image: John Donahue laughs with Nancy Mills at his retirement party at Trinity University. Courtesy photo.