Donna Shane Hopkins
Donna Shane Hopkins’ generous and expansive heart, beating since her Valentine-Day birth 77 years ago, 1943, finally gave up trying to cope with all the medical challenges she experienced over the years, including a battle with COVID-19 that she survived.
Her big and open heart, so filled with love and joy, had no more room to function. On Tuesday, Sept. 15, while recuperating at North Valley Hospital in Whitefish, Montana, she let go. Now, hundreds of people, friends and family can remember and share the happiness she brought us. Each story, every friend, and all the time spent with those who loved her was a memory embraced by her, relived in every conversation, text, e-mail and Facebook post, providing her with joy in each encounter.
Donna’s love of travel and learning was eclipsed only by her love for family and friends. She collected friends and connected her expansive network of “sisters” everywhere she traveled and lived, whether shopping at the local Safeway, crossing an ocean to live and work in Australia, or traveling the Silk Road. At every stop along her journey, whether a few hours or years, her heart opened for new friendships, bringing her a staggering number of loving connections.
She was born in Stoughton, Wisconsin, where her mother, Mildred (Onsrud) had gone to be with family for her pregnancy during the height of WWII. Donna didn’t meet her B-25 pilot father, Donald Hopkins, until she was walking and more than a year old.
Wanderlust started early for Donna. By the end of the war, Don, Mildred and Donna settled in Missoula, Montana. Donald intended to finish his studies at the University of Montana, which had been interrupted four years earlier with his enlistment in the Army Air Corps.
Starting in Missoula, Don took his young family on a tour of the developing radio broadcasting industry. She first heard his booming voice coming from a box sitting on a dresser in 1946 and wondered where “Papa” was. During eight years of moves, from Missoula, to Tacoma, Washington, to southern California, Donna attended four different grade schools until the family finally settled in Bakersfield, California in 1953 with its newest addition, Roger.
Other than the final 15 years of Donna’s life in Whitefish, the years spent in Bakersfield were the most settled for her. After graduating from Bakersfield High in 1961 and collecting her first set of enduring friendships, Donna spent two years at the community college. She continued her studies at UCLA, ultimately transferring to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where in 1967 she got her B.S. in Education and English and another group of life-long friends.
Teaching brought her back to Bakersfield. But before she settled into a two-year career teaching high school English, she embarked on a cross-country adventure with friends and her 13-year-old brother in a brand new 1967 Ford Mustang. Adventure called again in 1969 when she boarded a ship bound for Australia. That journey forged more life-long friendships and experiences she treasured the rest of her life, including teaching English at an all-boys high school: a young, blond, beautiful American woman coping with a class full of Aussie boys. Torn between a longing for home and lust for adventure, she ended her two years in Australia with an around-the-world adventure, traveling across Asia, the middle east, and Europe, collecting more friends along the way.
She returned to the states and settled to work and play in San Francisco. She also continued her education, receiving an M.A .in Anthropology at Cal State Hayward in 1978. Little did she know that degree would be her ticket home to Montana. In 1977-78 she wintered in Northern Maine in part to test her mettle for living through a Montana winter. By 1979, Donna had committed to her goal of returning to the one place she felt the greatest heart connection: her grandmother and Whitefish.
As a child Donna spent summers in Whitefish with Edgar and Elizabeth Hopkins. The complete and unconditional love between grandparents and grandchild formed an unbreakable bond with memories that Donna drew upon during her eventual retirement at the Hopkins’ homestead.
Together Donna and Roger committed to caring for Elizabeth, starting with her 90th birthday party in 1979, and culminating in Donna’s hire at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Montana, where she created and led the fledgling Community Education Program. For more than six years Donna, who ultimately became Dean of Community Education, lived with Gramma Hopkins while building the program into what it is today.
Another bout of wanderlust took over, this time leading her to Mexico, Central and South America, California, Texas, and Hawaii, where she ultimately settled in Honolulu to work for the U.S. Small Business Administration. It was there that Donna found her heart connection with a young Cambodian orphan who would become Donna’s only child; if not legally, absolutely in spirit.
She was introduced to Chantha Suon and the Future Light Orphanage of Worldmate (FLOW), through the Sunrise Rotary in Honolulu. As a sponsor, Donna not only made routine contributions of financial support, but in 2009 traveled to the orphanage outside of Phnom Pehn to meet her “daughter” for the first time. The bond between Chantha and Donna was immediate and unbreakable, and Donna made several other visits, helping as a mentor and teacher at FLOW.
Despite making another dozen or more close, life-long friendships in Hawaii, it wasn’t long before Donna got “island fever.” Life away from mainland friends and family was too burdensome. She transferred to the SBA in Las Vegas, working as an Economic Development Specialist, focusing on helping women succeed in starting and growing small businesses.
While in Las Vegas Donna brought her mentorship of women into her home, sponsoring a foreign exchange high school student from Germany. As with all of Donna’s connections, her commitment and love for Hanife Koch carried beyond the 2003-2004 school year.
Shortly after retiring from the SBA in Las Vegas and moving to Whitefish, Donna committed her time and attention to bringing Chantha to the U.S. She was ultimately successful, and “gave” Chantha away in marriage to Tra Yin in Hawaii in 2014.
Even in retirement, Donna never stopped expressing her creativity, her love for friends, and especially her fondness for Whitefish. During the last years of local artist James Bakke’s life, Donna interviewed the artist — a longtime personal family friend — and collected a number of his works to publish, “James R. Bakke, Montana Artist: From the Prairie, to Whitefish, to Glacier National Park” in 2012.
Sister, auntie, “mommie,” and dear, dear friend and spirit, Donna is survived by Chantha and Tra Yin, Honolulu; brother Roger, and her “heart sister”/fellow valentine Lenny Granger of Columbia Falls; niece Elizabeth (Hopkins) Records, Jerry Records, and grand-nephew Campbell Records, of Kalispell; nephews Treyson Hopkins and Noah Hopkins-Martin, Columbia Falls; Hanife Koch of Cologne, Germany; cousins Marianne, Ed and Sue Madler of Whitefish; cousins Catherine and Andy Onsrud-Ewing, and David Onsrud of Madison, Wis.; and Onsrud and Luding cousins across the country. And, of course, her “sisters” around the world.
She will be interred in Whitefish Cemetery with her grandmother Elizabeth and next to her grandfather Edgar, the two souls who filled her heart with a sense of place and peace, and gave her a home for her final rest.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Donna’s memory to the organization sponsoring Cambodian orphans: eGlobal Family, P.O. Box 2536, Honolulu, HI 96804-2536.
Austin Funeral and cremation services in Whitefish is caring for Donna’s family.