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Look what I found

A column from the Donna Reed Foundation.

Sleuthing in the Donna Reed Archives.

by Judy Miller

Donna Reed continued her correspondence with her pen pal, Violet Coughenour throughout her lifetime, not with the same frequency as in their teenage years, but steadily over almost half a century.

Donna Reed family photo
Donna Reed and children Penny, Tony, Jr., and Tim at Disneyland in 1950

Donna wrote a little about her work, which she described as "hard and demanding"; about how tedious she found shopping for her professional and personal wardrobe; and about her (mostly business-related) travels. Her tone changed entirely when she wrote about her family, both her cherished family of origin and the family she created with her husband, Tony Owen. It was clear that in spite of being a working mother in a time when it wasn't so common, her top priority, as well as her pride and joy, was her children. Long before she became America's mom on The Donna Reed Show, she was just Mom.

Donna's eldest son, Tony Owen, Jr., in an article published by the Daily Nonpareil in June 2007, said, "I saw my parents every day, and we had dinner at night around the table. To me, Mom was Donna Owen, schlepping the kids around."

Tony Jr. liked the normal life he was accustomed to and which Donna and Tony Sr. tried to provide for him and his siblings. Nevertheless, there were times when the family was approached while dining out and asked for autographs. In Tony's words, "It annoyed the hell out of us. I thought, 'This is my time with Mom, not yours.' " He did like to visit his mother on the set of The Donna Reed Show, however, because he was "fascinated by the process."

photo of Donna's onstage and offstage families.
Donna Reed's offstage and onstage families.

In a letter to Violet, dated January 13, 1961, Donna wrote, "My two oldest are taller than I am now at 13 and 14 years of age, and really so much fun!! I have found that humor and a well-spotted laugh make these years quite painless, so far, at any rate; in fact, they're fun, as I said. Penny discovered competitive swimming last summer. Now she has blood in her eye and a coach, as well as her eye on Tokyo '64, but we'll see about this Olympics business in due time! They all play fairly good tennis, well enough to give my husband and me a workout on the courts and we try to indulge, even over the winter, at least once a week. (Mary chases the ball). Tim is now 11, very athletic and academic. Mary is 3 ½, happy, completely outgoing, and divine which is true of all 4th children in a family, especially if they are girls! What a joy!"

Family Christmas photo
Beverly Hills Christmas, 1965. to R: William R. Mullenger (72), Hazel Jane Shives Mullenger (66), Tony R. Owen (19), Donna Mullenger Owen (44), Peter Flynn, Tim Owen (17), Penny Owen (20), Mary Owen (8). Rear: Tony Owen (54), Michael Flynn and Kate Flynn.

In subsequent letters to Violet, it is obvious that there were reasonable expectations and normalcy for the children. Donna reports that Tony and Penny have summer jobs, that Tim is a "language whiz" as a high school sophomore, that Mary is an "exuberant" elementary school student with many interests, including horses, and that the family enjoyed a deep sea fishing trip where Tim and a friend landed a 134-pound marlin. “And the beast now hangs stuffed on our lanai for all to admire these days," added Donna.


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