Sleuthing in the Donna Reed Archive
A column by Judy Miller
Considering that I was born and raised in Denison, Donna Reed has always been, metaphorically, in my peripheral vision. As a teenager, I was the occasional babysitter of her three little nephews, the sons of her brother, Bill Mullenger, and his wife, Sandy. A few years later I attended a fraternity formal at the University of Iowa wearing a borrowed black dress that had belonged to Donna and had, for whatever reason, fallen into the hands of my mother's friend. More years later, I spotted Donna slipping into the care facility where both her father and my grandmother were residents. I confess to having an oh-my-gosh-it's-Donna-Reed moment, but somehow summoned the good sense and the good grace to respect her privacy. I'm not so sure I could have reined myself in as effectively if cell phones and selfies had existed at that time.
My front door is 44 steps from the "new" school, built in 1936, from which Donna graduated in 1938. My dad graduated from the same school in 1936 and remembered Donna, then Donnabelle, as a nice girl from the country, quiet, shy, kind of pretty. My former in-laws graduated with the class of 1940 and remembered her a little differently, still nice, but by then, popular and outgoing.
A pen-pal correspondence between Donna and Violet Coughenour began when the two girls were 13 years old and appears to have endured for 48 years, Their early letters are a bit of a road map of the transformation, The Iowa farm girl and the Philadelphia city girl compared the books they read, the movies they saw, their classes and activities, fashions of the day, and shared the typical teenaged angst. Fourteen-year-old Donnabelle lamented to Violet in describing her physical appearance, "The only thing pretty about me is my teeth," She also confided, "I don't know if I am kind and pleasant to associate with, but I must say, I do have patience with most everything."
Donna was given a piece of advice by her admired science teacher, Mr. Ed Tompkins, the gist of which was that to make friends, she should show genuine interest in others and direct the conversation toward their activities and concerns rather than her own. It was advice she must have taken to heart because by the end of her high school career she had served as both junior and senior class treasurer, was an honor roll student, sang alto in girls glee club, starred in the senior class play, was elected May Queen over seven other girls to reign over the annual May Fete, and had a wide circle of friends.
Although they stayed in touch, in the next few years both Donna and Mr. Tompkins moved on to loftier pursuits, Donna became a campus queen at Los Angeles City College where she first attracted interest from Hollywood scouts who apparently saw something more than pretty teeth, and Ed Tompkins to the secret city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee where he worked on the Manhattan Project in the development of the Little Boy and Fat Man atomic bombs used in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively which brought an end to WWII.
Find out more about the Donna Reed Heritage Museum and Archive located at 1305 Broadway in Denison. Hours are 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m Monday through Friday. If you have any memories of Donna, please stop by and share your memories and photos.