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A Life: Shawn M. Donovan, 1947-2018; ‘Whatever He Thought Was the Right Thing to Do, He Just Went After’

  • At right, Shawn Donovan, project manager for the Hartford Dismas House, hands paperwork to Steve Lagasse, chairman of the Hartford Zoning Board, during a board meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on June 8, 2011. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Shawn Donovan and Margaret Bragg with their children Sarah and Elias on Christmas 2008. (Family photograph) Family photographs

  • Shawn Donovan, who began his work as a social activist by protesting the Vietnam War around 1970, in his 20s. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/27/2018 11:46:35 PM
Modified: 5/27/2018 11:46:35 PM

Lebanon — One by one, more than two dozen people stood up inside Dartmouth College’s Rollins Chapel on a Saturday afternoon this spring to pay tribute to Shawn Donovan.

They shared stories of Donovan’s work on behalf of the homeless, the incarcerated, the undocumented and just about anyone else on the down and out.

The service, which was attended by 200 or so, lasted only a little more than an hour. But it was ample time to paint a clear picture:

Donovan, who died unexpectedly at his home in Lebanon on Feb. 19, 2018, at age 70, was a doer. A roll-up-his-sleeves guy who cooked in soup kitchens, pounded nails for Habitat for Humanity and participated in vigils to bring attention to the plight of undocumented immigrants.

“Whatever he thought was the right thing to do, he just went after,” his daughter, Sarah Bragg-Donovan, said at the memorial service, “There was no stopping him.”

Donovan’s obituary, written by his former wife, Margaret Bragg, stretched more than 1,100 words — many of them describing his volunteer work with nonprofit organizations and social justice causes.

“Shawn just felt that he needed to get involved in things that would make life easier or better for people who didn’t have the advantages that some of us do,” Bragg said.

Donovan’s entry into the world of social activism came while he was a college student during the Vietnam War. He left Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., for a while to join the resistance movement in the Boston area, following the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970.

After the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam in 1973, it was sometimes asked — sarcastically — what remained for anti-war protesters to do.

That was never problem for Donovan, Bragg said. “He found many other causes to believe in and fight for,” she said.

He was a disciple of Dorothy Day, the journalist and social activist who co-founded the so-called Catholic Worker Movement. After spending time with Day in New York, Donovan, who grew up in Concord, Mass., returned to Worcester. In 1972, Donovan and friends opened the Mustard Seed soup kitchen that’s still an integral part of a a low-income Worcester neighborhood.

Donovan and Bragg, who were together for 25 years and remained good friends, moved to New Hampshire in 1975. Donovan found work as a carpenter, a trade that he became quite skilled at and put to good use. He pitched in with the construction of several Habitat for Humanity homes in the Upper Valley. In the winter of 2000-2001, he joined his son, Elias, and other Brown University students on a Habitat project in East Providence, R.I.

In the early 1980s, after earning his master’s degree in regional planning and administration, Donovan melded his volunteer interests with his professional life.

He became a planner for Dartmouth College, working on infrastructure, land development and transportation projects.

While living in Hanover, he was appointed to the town’s Planning Board and served on the governing board of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission as well.

According to a speaker at the memorial service, Donovan helped “shape public transportation in the Upper Valley.” He was an early board member of Advance Transit and coordinated the development of the shuttle bus system that serves the town of Hanover, the college and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Donovan saw free or affordable public transportation as a way to help people “keep their paycheck in their pocket instead of leaving it at the gas pumps,” said Len Cadwallader, retired executive director of Vital Communities, a nonprofit organization based in White River Junction.

Along with working with Donovan on public transportation issues, Cadwallader knew him from the Quaker meetinghouse in Hanover. After growing up in a Catholic household, Donovan became an active member of Hanover Friends Meeting, a Quaker society.

At Donovan’s memorial service, several speakers made light of how long it can take Quaker societies to make decisions. When it came time to erect a new sign in front of the meetinghouse, which is next to Hanover High School, there were lengthy deliberations over the color of the sign and whether it should be lit at night.

But when the sign was finally up, Donovan reminded his friends that the words etched in large letters on the sign — “All Are Welcome — were what mattered most.

Donovan was an Upper Valley leader in the effort to help undocumented workers threatened with deportation under the Trump administration. In a March 2017 interview with the Valley News, Donovan said “it’s important to stand up and support the people who are being targeted by the federal government right now.”

Donovan wasn’t satisfied “just sitting around a table and talking about what we should be doing. He was always ready to take the next step when action was needed,” said Kathleen Shepherd, who worked with Donovan in the Quakers’ effort to assist undocumented immigrants in what’s known nationally as the “sanctuary movement.”

Donovan participated in monthly vigils at the Immigration and Customs offices, better known as ICE, at the federal building in Manchester.

Donovan helped the Dismas House in Hartford get off the ground. Dismas, which provides affordable and supportive housing to recently release inmates in Vermont, faced opposition before it opened. He served as project manager for Dismas, which opened in 2014.

His social activism stretched beyond the Upper Valley. He remained involved with the Mustard Seed in Worcester and made regular visits to the North Central Correctional Institution in Gardner, Mass., to work with inmates in a program called Alternatives to Violence Project. After undergoing training, Donovan participated in workshops with inmates to give them the coping tools to better deal with problems inside prison and once they were out.

“This fit in with Shawn’s whole life of activism and peace work,” said Nancy Shippen, a leader in the Massachusetts branch of the national organization.

In recent years, Donovan got involved in tackling the Upper Valley’s homeless problem. So much so, that he opened up a spare bedroom in his home for a few months to someone needing a roof over his head.

“Shawn was an unusually socially conscious and accomplished person,” said his Lebanon neighbor and closest friend, Peter Scoppettone. “Those were his best traits.”

Friends say that Donovan didn’t seek the limelight and felt comfortable working behind the scenes. A couple of years ago, a homeless encampment behind the Hannaford parking lot on Route 12A in West Lebanon became a hot-button issue.

“Shawn didn’t want it to be a police matter,” said state Rep. Richard Abel, of Lebanon. “He wanted to get all of the community together to find housing solutions.”

Donovan pieced together an alliance of nonprofit social service organizations and local municipalities to find “safe, clean” housing for the people living in the encampment, said Cadwallader, the retired executive director of Vital Communities.

There’s probably a good chance that many of the people he helped over the years aren’t aware of what he did for them or that their “angel has passed on,” Cadwallader said. “He was just always there for them.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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