Spotlight: Donna Yates (HappyJackMom)

By Sharon Brown (Sharon) on January 24, 2011

I didn't know Happy Jack was the name of a town in Arizona. I only knew that it was the name of an online friend and the name made me smile every time I saw it. Even knowing it's the name of a town, I still smile when I see my friend's name. I think you will too, after you read about her.

I'd like you to meet Donna Yates, HappyJackMom. Those of us who know her already, know what a loving, caring, charming friend she is. She's also very interesting and has a lifetime of stories to tell us. I am so glad you joined us for this Spotlight. I know you will enjoy getting to know Donna and I also know you'll always remember her name with a smile. Here's Donna's story; I'm letting her tell it in her own beautiful words...2011-01-22/Sharran/3810ea


I was born in Paso Robles, California, a small town that was noted for its hot springs. Its official name was El Paso de Robles which means Pass of the Oaks.

It's interesting how I met my husband, Earl. 

Earl's family, his Mom, brother and step-father, moved from Minnesota to Paso Robles. At that time my dad worked at the service station across highway 101 (the El Camino Real) from the Drew Ranch where Mom worked selling fruits, nuts and homemade candies.  Earl's mother sought work there as soon as they settled in Paso.  The first time he saw me Earl said I was sitting in a prune box. In those days prunes came is small wooden crates.  I was 2 years old or so. He's never let me forget that to this day. Several years later Mom was working at a fruit stand in Atascadero.  As luck would have it, Earl's family had moved to Atascadero and lived right up the road and he was friends with the owner of the fruit stand's son. I remember following around some of the boys as they flew kites on the hillside above the highway across the street. I also remember them leaving me holding the kite string when they went home!

Other strange things happened to draw us together.  Earl's biological father had moved to Paso Robles and set up his studio after his divorce in Minnesota; he was a professional photographer. I have a photo of myself at age 6 months taken by my future father-in-law!  When my dad passed away and our sons were going through his belonging, they ran across Dad's V.F.W. membership card, signed by him and Earl's dad. Dad was a sharpshooter in the Marines, but never saw battle, though they were once deployed in Nicaragua. U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933. Otherwise, he and his platoon were always aboard ship.  He served on the USS Idaho, USS Maryland and the USS Lexington, from 1925-1929.  He never talked about his service at all.  I only found this information after he passed away.

Earl's dad was in the Army as a photographer and was mustered out when he was taken ill after being exposed to mustard gas in Europe.

In the genealogy world it's very rare to find the signatures of two grandfathers on one document. Can you say Kismet?

We met again in 1951.  My step-sister was a race car fan and at that time there were stock car races at the Paso Robles County Fair Grounds.  They raced on the dirt horse track.  She started taking me to the races with her.  Well, I really liked the tall, handsome young man who drove the old Ford sedan with the numbers 205 painted on the side. Shirley told me that he lived in Atascadero where we lived.  As it turns out he was a welder and mechanic and worked at a local welding shop that just happened to be across the street from our house!  Her husband's father had owned that shop for years. The rest is more or less history; we got married and we are now in our 59th year together!  July 2011 will be our 59th Anniversary.

I spent a lot of summers and vacations at the cabin with my grandparents.  Grandpa had a gold mining claim in the Santa Lucia Mountains on the Pacific coast of Monterey County, California. The road up into the mining district was seven miles of clay as you drove up the mountainside. A cabin had been built sometime between my parent's marriage in 1935 and before I was born.  Before that time, everyone just camped out in a tent.  Mom and Dad spent their honeymoon in a tent at "The Mine," while years later, my husband and I spent our honeymoon in the cabin.

The cabin sat on the edge of2011-01-22/Sharran/6be134 a canyon, with the kitchen window facing south.  From that window, one could watch the evening fog roll in from the Pacific.  It was a marvelous, wonderous place for a child to enjoy. The red clay soil and wonderful tall Ponderosa, Madrone and Bay trees, and Manzanita bushes made up the surrounding forest.  The summers were hot if you stood out in the sun but if you sat beneath a tree, the shade was so cooling.  The winters could be wet, and you took your life in your hands driving the narrow, slick road.

Grandpa had a gray donkey named Sally who would become my constant companion.  She and Skookie, Grandpa's loyal terrier, allowed me to play with them by the hour.  I would put a cardboard box on Sally's back and tie it there with a thin little rope so Skookie would have a place to ride as I led Sally around the yard.

When Sally was put to work, she would either carry me or be saddled with the pack-saddle, where tools, water and lunch would be hauled to the mine entrance. There Grandpa would take his wheelbarrow, shovel and pick into the horizontal mine shaft to spend the day doing what he most enjoyed, digging for gold!  Skookie and I would roam around the area; he was always my protector.  I was only 6 months older than he was but as a puppy, he would sit by my crib and protect me from whatever should try to harm me. I had been warned may times to watch for rattlesnakes and mountain lions as we explored but Skookie was there to warn me of danger.  How I loved to sit beneath the huge Madrone trees and peel off the cracking thin outer bark.  The pitch from the pine trees made a good chewing gum after it dried out.

The cabin had no electricity, but did have running water that came from a single spigot over the kitchen sink; that water came from the s2011-01-22/Sharran/519c68pring that flowed into a very small pond and then down and into the cabin's plumbing.  The old cast iron wood cook stove served wonderful meals and kept the three room cabin warm.  There was a larger wood stove that stood for a while in the yard outside the kitchen; it was used for canning and cooking large meals for guests and family reunions.

Above the cabin on the hillside was an area Grandpa had leveled for a garden.  He had planted fruit trees and berry vines and grew a garden there every summer.  He was a retired rancher on a meager income and so the extra food was canned and shared with everyone who looked hungry.  During WWII, the Army was training Troops in the Los Burros Mining District.  They would stop in to visit with my Grandparents and be fed venison stew with fresh fruit and veggies from that garden.

The one thing that I haven't done but would like to do, is visit Hearst Castle and the Piedra Blancas Lighthouse in San Simeon, California.  Not to enjoy the beauty of the castle or all its treasures, but to look out over the 1,414 acres of land that was once owned by my great-great-grandparents.  Peter and Nancy Gillis bought part of a Spanish Land Grant in San Simeon in 1867, where they started a ranch and made their home. Their grandson, John Thomas Gillis (my grandfather) was born there in 1871, not far from where the lighthouse stands to this day. When the lighthouse was being built, Peter Gillis was the teamster driver and hauled building materials.  When the lighthouse was finished, Peter Gillis became the postmaster for the Piedra Blancas Post Office. He later served as postmaster at Manchester, the little town of miners in the Los Burros District.  I have a letter that my grandfather sent to his wife to be.  It was mailed from Manchester and canceled by my great-grandfather. Several years later, that little town would burn to the ground.  In the early 1970's what had been left of Manchester was completely destroyed by a massive forest fire.

We took a little break while I absorbed the ideas of spending summers in a small cabin while mining for gold and looking out over land owned by great-great grandparents. I spent some time thinking of friendships with long eared animals, not to mention the thought of mountain lions and rattlesnakes. I asked Donna if there was anything she was afraid of. Here's her answer...


You mean besides spiders?  Or losing another member of our family? Or our present government?


I thought then that perhaps I'd best leave that question and move on to another because sometimes, just like a wise sage, Donna has a way of saying just enough in very few words. I realized I didn't want to know that this very brave woman might have fears. So I moved on and asked her about her favorite memory hoping it would lead to another story. It did. 

Probably my favorite memory would be the trips to Grandpa's mining claim. One time, just Grandpa and I went up, in his little 1931 Chevy coupe.  When we got to Cambria, he would always stop at a store and chat with the locals.  I didn't know at the time, but Grandma and Grandpa used to live there and that's where my Aunt Edy was born. When we approached San Simeon, I could see some of the exotic animals that Hearst let roam in the fields along Highway 1.  My favorites were the zebras of course, then the bison. We always had to go into San Simeon to stop at Sebastian's Store.  Creaky wood floors would greet us at the front door where Mr. Sebastian always had a fresh cup of coffee for Grandpa and a soda for me, while they sat there and talked about old times.  I guess it was old times, since Grandpa was born in San Simeon in 1871.  He never talked much about his days in San Simeon, but there was much I was to learn years later.

Once, my Aunt Edy wanted to take her beautiful, shiny wooden horse trailer up to the cabin.  She towed it behind her 1932 Buick coupe.  The Buick had a rumble seat, and my cousin and I rode all the way to the entrance of the dirt road that lead to the mining district, enjoying the wind in our faces. By the time we got off Highway 1, it had been raining for a while. This area of Monterey county is mostly red clay, and the road was so slick that the heavy Buick couldn't get past the second grade in the road. My Uncle Ray had followed with his Ford coupe and we all had to pile into it in order to get to the cabin over six miles up the mountain and out of the rain.  I don't think that I ever remember Ray not smelling of booze, and this day was no exception.  He drove with Aunt Edy (his older sister), sitting beside him while I sat in Grandma's lap and Grandpa & my cousin, Junior, rode in the trunk. Ray drove like a maniac, as usual, sliding around turns with wheels spinning in the mud.  Around the corner he went and as the road straightened out, there was a monster Ponderosa pine that had fallen across the road.  Ray slammed on the brakes and the Ford slid to a stop with the trunk of that tree just inches from the windshield!  He got out and extracted Grandpa and Junior out of the trunk. By that time it was dark and Grandpa and Junior walked up the mountain to the cabin to get the saw so they could cut through that big tree.  It had to be at least a 4 mile walk, in the rain, at night, up a mountain on a slippery road.  It was a long time before they got back and it took them quite a while to make two saw cuts in that tree and roll the section off the road.  I guess that night our Guardian Angels were sitting on our shoulders.


My grandpa of course, and to a certain extent my mom, helped to encourage me to learn to plant seeds to grow vegetables.  I grew up in the WW II era where "Victory Gardens" were a must.
Grandpa had a garden above the cabin, it was watered by irrigation from the small year around spring that flowed from the mountainside above the garden.  He planted apple, pear and peach trees.  He put in a line of boysenberries.  I can remember the smell and taste to this day of Grandma's boysenberry pies.  They were so good!  It was such a treat for me to be with them at the cabin, as my Mom always had me on a diet.  Whenever we went to the mine tunnel he was working at the time, Grandpa always made sure we had a jug of cool spring water and a bag of venison jerky.  At the day's end, we would go up into the garden and tend to the plants.  He liked to pull nice big turnips from the warm soil and take them down to the little pool to wash the dirt from them.  Then we would sit down and watch the water skippers darting across the pond's surface, as we ate slices of raw turnip.  I don't remember even eating turnips since those days, either raw or cooked.

At their little home in Atascadero, Grandpa planted rows of sweet corn and other veggies in the sandy soil.  Grandma planted flowers. She loved Nasturtiums and anything that bloomed red.  At the cabin she planted Jupiter's Beard in a tire planter.  I can't help wondering how much she would have loved to have tires as wide as they are
2011-01-22/Sharran/ff308etoday.  Laid on their sides, they would have made a taller planter, and she wouldn't have had to bend over so far to tend to her plants.

When Earl and I were married, we discovered our love of plants when we bought our first home four months later.  Our home was near the top of a hill three miles from town. The only water was supplied by a windmill from a 125 foot deep well.  The water was pumped up into a large redwood storage tank high above the house.  We had plenty of water pressure, when there was water that is!  We were not able to grow the things we wanted to, but enjoyed the plants that the previous owner's wife had planted.  Her husband had been a trucker and he brought her plants from all over.  We were told that the lady had friends in Hollywood who would send her rhizomes of the very latest in hybrid tall bearded iris and rose bushes.  By the time we bought the five plus acres, the deer and other critters had taken their toll of the plants.  In the ten years we lived up on the hill we started to collect orchids, one plant at a time, and soon had a homemade greenhouse full of blooms.  When we sold out and moved closer to town, we had city water and we went on to other things.  It wasn't until we moved to Washington state that we were able once more to have a garden with both veggies and flowers.

When we sold the house on the hill in California, we moved out in a valley where we had about 1/2 an acre of land beside a seasonal stream.  We had sold all of our cattery of Siamese but one Chocolate Point queen with one kitten and Tang Tu, our Seal Point male.  We knew that our new neighbors wouldn't appreciate a cattery in the back yard.  There was a large circular concrete driveway for the kids to ride their bikes and neighbor children to play with. It was a place where the children could get to school by catching the bus out front , instead of Mom having to drive our children down and back up the hill for a total of six trips a day; as they each would be going to different schools.

We were in Yuma, AZ for almost 7 years, when Earl got the chance to go to work on Lake Washington at the Naval Base in Seattle, as a welder and maintenance man. By then we had two grown sons.

The oldest boy stayed in Arizona with his new bride when we left Arizona and his younger brother moved with us to Washington.  One finish2011-01-22/Sharran/739e7fed his education in Arizona, while the other finished his in Washington.  I believe both got better educations in these two states than we received in California.

We spent 17 wonderful years living in the woods, just a mile from the Seattle city limits, in Snohomish county.  I was in genealogy Heaven!  In Seattle, there was one of the best libraries in the nation with genealogical data.  There was the National Archives where I volunteered for about two years.  I also did duty with Mom as a volunteer librarian at the Family History Center in Edmonds, Washington. I had all that wonderful data to plow through to search for my ancestors.

The day Mount St. Helen's erupted, on May 18, 1980, we could see the eruption of ash rise 80,000 feet into the atmosphere of clear blue sky, from the street in front of our house!  The day before she erupted, we had gone over to the 'East side' of the Cascades, to look at some property to invest in for Earl's future retirement.  We came back through Yakima and up the mountain to look at a lot, not far from St. Helen's.  We thought about staying overnight on our way back North, as we approached the east-side of Mount Rainer.  But since it was still light, we went straight home.  IF we had stayed the night on the mountain, we would have been covered the next morning with volcanic ash!  Our Guardian Angels were again watching over us that day.

We left the beautiful state of Washington as the cost of living had risen so high; we felt that DH's retirement income wouldn't be enough to live on.  We looked back to Arizona where our children were living.  We would have liked to retire in Oregon, but we needed to be closer to our kids.  Our youngest had sold his home in Washington just the year before and moved back to Arizona.

The main thing we were looking for in property was a forest of tall Ponderosa trees.  And boy, does Arizona have that.  My memories of Grandpa's mining claim in the Santa Lucias of central California was forever embedded in my mind, and I knew we would never be happy moving back to the desert.

So, we had prepared in the 4-5 years prior to his retirement, and spent weeks each winter looking for property in Arizona.  We looked up in the northern section in central Arizona, south of the Grand Canyon. We found the perfect area, just 125 miles by highway from our sons.  We wondered if Earl could take the high altitude.  We liked the east side of the state with the White Mountains overlooking vast Ponderosa forests.  We decided against it as the drive was too far and in the winters the roads can be closed.  So, as we drove down off the Mogollon Rim from the Coconino National Forest and into Pine, we stopped at a Realty.  The young man that met us there inquired to as what type of property we wanted and where.  As we sat there talking, we found that he had come from our home town in California, and had at one time worked at my sister's nursery! 
2011-01-22/Sharran/14058cThey say that it's a small world, and friends, it certainly is!!!

I guess you could say we have calculating minds. We sit down and try to figure out all the angles when buying property. Of course the main concern was cost. We needed to have enough cash left over to build Earl a shop, if the place we chose didn't have one. Weather and altitude were a concern. Earl's mother told me that he had altitude sickness as a young man. And once while we were camping at Cedar Breaks in Utah, he got so sick (he couldn't breathe) that I had to drive our motor home down the mountain at night to get to an altitude where he could catch his breath. Most of the places we looked at were from 5,000' to almost 8,000'. So in January we camped out in our old van overnight in a couple of different places and he did fine.

When we camped out just up the road from the place we were thinking about buying, it was so cold! The next morning the screws that held the paneling in place on the ceiling of the van were covered with frost! We were snug and cozy because he had had the whole interior of the van foamed before he put in the bed and paneling. But since the screws went through the paneling and into the rib of the ceiling, the cold was transferred from the metal roof. When we settled down in the front seats, we looked at the thermometer that gave the outside temp, it was 18 degrees! We decided we survived and would be able to stand the cold winter weather, the wonderful springs, the summer monsoons, the glorious autumns and the altitude just fine. And the name Happy Jack was a kick! The unit that we bought had a well maintained gravel road to the cabin on ground level. the main highway is very seldom closed because of weather and we can always go out to the north if need be, to Winslow.

The cabin sits with the ridge of the roof to the north/south position with no overhanging trees. So the sun hits both sides of the roof to melt the snow quicker. That can't be said for the shop, that has its ridge going east/west. The north side is always covered with snow after all the others have melted. We looked at a couple of nicer cabins, but they were on the north side of a hill or canyon; too cold in the winter with no sun to melt the snow. The cabin we bought had never been lived in and probably only used as a weekend cabin for the owners and builders that lived in Phoenix. When we first saw the cabin, we were not impressed, it was just a large rectangular box with no porch, no out buildings and no water. Water had to be hauled by way of a trailer with a 500 gallon water tank. The cabin was larger than we2011-01-22/Sharran/7a0864 expected to find, and was fully furnished, down to the pots and pans and silverware in the drawers. So we made an offer and got the cabin for $7,000 less than it had been listed for. We bought it and have never been sorry.

Our son brought up his car trailer loaded with redwood one Father's Day and said, "Okay Dad, you wanted a front porch, so here it is!" So we now have an 8'x48' porch facing the rising sun. 

The wildlife here is wondrous, elk, whitetail and mule deer, black bear, cougars, coyotes, gray fox and so many others. It will break our hearts the day that we must leave this place, as we have been very happy 'campers'!

Earl was an apprentice welder at 16 and quit school before he graduated from high school.  He was a great mechanic and had worked with his step-father as a house painter.  He can fix just about anything.  He built his 40'X40' metal shop, insulated it and built an office and a storage room inside.  Our neighbors depend on him for watching their cabins and taking care of their yards. Our well association has depended on him for well maintenance for the past 10+ years.  At 81, he loves his garden and will dig rocks whenever they are in our way.  Since we live in the land of Kaibab Limestone and Coconino Sandstone, there's always plenty of rocks on our one acre of land.


Don't you love Donna's story? Her life reads like an adventure and I'm living it right along with her. I didn't want it to end, even in such a happy place as Happy Jack, Arizona. So I asked her one more question, "What is the very best change that living in this era has brought to you?"

The coming of the electronic era, where we can sit and "talk" with our family and friends from across the country or the world from our own homes, has been the best change that I've seen during my lifetime.  How marvelous is that?  I can go out on the porch, take a photo of the freshly fallen snow and send a picture to our children in the desert within minutes.  I can never wait patiently through each winter for spring to bring the color back to our gardens, to enjoy the iris as they bloom in all their glory, just for me, to go out and take photos of them to share with my family and friends.


And I agree with you, my friend. I know Donna has some physical limitations, though you'd never know it when talking with her or when reading her words. I asked if she minded sharing this with us, and in her usual endearing manner, she told me about it.


I was born with a genetic disease of the muscles called Charcot Marie Tooth.  I have a mild or might you say a slow occurring bilateral muscular atrophy, which involves the muscles of the lower extr2011-01-22/Sharran/a10b19emities; meaning lower arms and legs. It has left me with numb feet and hands that are starting to bother me and I find it hard to do some things, besides walking of course.  I can barely turn the key in the truck's ignition.  I find turning the small locks on doorknobs impossible and I use pliers to open soda bottles.  I cannot open a can of tuna or cat food, if they have pull off tops on them.  It's really irritating to say the least.  I don't cook anymore, Earl does that.  It's been just the past 8 years that I have had to depend on a power chair to get around the house, out in the garden and to go shopping.  My worst problem is arthritis of the back, neck and miscellaneous joints; and then there's the type II Diabetes.  I can deal with most of this as long as there's someone else around.  What bothers me the most is that I have passed this disease down to our children.

I have been getting cabin fever, because I can't go outside to play in the garden.  One of my favorite tools to use, one that the average person wouldn't think about using in the garden, is needle nose pliers.  Weeds are hard enough to pull as it is, and I have found that with using pliers, I can get right down to the roots to yank those suckers out!  Luckily, I can bend over, as long as I hang on to something, to pull weeds and plant flowers.  With my old powerchair, I was able to pick up rocks and put them on the footrest to tote them around.  The new chair is much too small and doesn't have the power the old chair had.  And for some reason, those same size rocks seem to be getting heavier every year. I run around the yard with a five gallon bucket on the footrest and pick up fallen pinecones with a small rake with extendable handle, one that we bought at a Big Lots store several years ago.  They also come in a trowel a
2011-01-22/Sharran/076261nd other small gardening tools.  They are really handy.

I depend on my computer to communicate with our friends and sons that live 125 miles away.  I have had computers for a lot of years, but now I find that I can't do without one.  I have been doing family genealogy for over 55 years and still find people who fill my data base to over flowing.  Since I can no longer knit, crochet, sew or do other useful things, my computer fills that gap.  I have met so many nice people over the internet and have made some very wonderful friends.  Take away our TV set, but keep your cotton pickin' hands off my computer!


Now do you see what I see in this beautiful woman? I admire her way with words, her courage, her strength, and the fact that she shared it with all of us. And that's not all, she's also written of her friendship with animals, especially the long eared kind, and you can read those stories here.

Donna, thank you so very much. You spent hours answering my questions, days typing and searching for pictures, and through it all you signed every message with hugs and love. The very worst thing that happened during this ti2011-01-22/Sharran/63e979me is that my computer blipped, as computers sometimes do, and I lost a ton of Donna's information. I couldn't get her from the house on the hill back to Happy Jack. So I wrote a note of panic and asked if she could possibly send the information again. She didn't even blink. Within minutes I had everything I needed.

There's one more thing I'd like to share with you. Donna is very entrenched in her genealogy and during the course of our friendship, she happened to mention that she was searching for a relative from Kentucky whose maiden name was Webb. My heart did a flip because my maiden name is also Webb and my family has always lived in Kentucky. We tried but could never find a blood connection, but that doesn't matter, we have the friendship connection and that's even better.

Thanks again, Donna!  And thanks to all of you for joining us. I'll meet you here again next week when we see who Nancy brings to our Spotlight! 


Related articles:
interview, interviews, spotlight

About Sharon Brown
I am a retired Art and Humanities teacher living in western Kentucky. I love writing and art with equal measure, but I also have a passion for nature and plants.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
So very interesting kareoke Mar 13, 2011 6:49 PM 6
Hello, Donna! nap Feb 24, 2011 3:41 PM 57
An unusual morning HappyJackMom Feb 22, 2011 4:43 PM 4
wonderful story kaglic Feb 7, 2011 12:26 PM 8
Fascinating Maria Feb 1, 2011 11:45 AM 6
I love it!! Ridesredmule Jan 27, 2011 9:44 AM 18
Your Journey Aguane Jan 24, 2011 2:09 PM 3

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