Donkle Now a FFA Legendary Owl
Description: Chuck Donkle is congratulated by former student Matt Sinclair, who nominated him for the FFA's Legendary Owl award at a celebration this fall. Sinclair received the award several years ago. Photo courtesy Colorado Ag Foundation
Donkle Now a FFA Legendary Owl
BY SUE KEEFER
Anyone who has spent much time with Chuck Donkle learns rather quickly that he loves to tell stories. “When people ask how I got to Las Animas, I tell them that Karen and I and our daughter fell into the river (in Salida) and floated down until we came to a dry spot,” he said, laughing.
Chuck, retired Ag teacher from Las Animas High School, was honored earlier this year with the “Legendary Owl” award, given by the Colorado Ag Teachers Association, to honor outstanding agricultural teachers and FFA advisers.
Although he was born in Aurora, IL, his parents moved to Salida, CO, to start an A & W Root Beer stand. They also invested in some land in the country, which is where Chuck began his interest in agriculture. He raised cattle, sheep, and pigs.
The plaque that Chuck Donkle received as part of his Legendary Owl award.
He also fell in love. He explained that he was the intermediary, passing notes from a friend of his to his future wife, Karen, who attended the parochial school. “I finally wised up and asked her out on a date,” he said. Little did Karen know that the car he drove on that first date, a 1959 four-door Studebaker Lark, would be the beginning of another love affair—with Studebakers. He would later restore one just like it.
Chuck started college at Ft. Lewis College in Durango, transferring two years later to Colorado State University in Fort Collins. In the summers, he worked at the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Chalk Cliffs Trout Rearing Unit. Between that job and selling his sheep and cattle, he earned enough to pay for college.
Prior to graduation, however, the U.S. government had different plans for him. In May of 1970, he was drafted into the Army. He took a delayed entry to marry Karen, and then went to basic training at Ft. Lewis, WA. He signed up as a clerk, was sent to school at Ft. Ord, CA, and later to Ft. Benning for finance school. All the classes before his had ended up in Vietnam, so he expected to go there as well. But he noticed a “PR” after his name and asked what that meant. He was told that he was going to Puerto Rico as a finance clerk. That’s where he stayed for the rest of his Army career. Karen was there with him. Their daughter Michelle was born in Puerto Rico.
When Chuck was discharged, he finished up his last year of college at CSU, graduating in 1973. During that time Karen, whose passion was nursing, worked at a nursing home in Salida. In fact, when he started looking for a teaching job, Karen had a job before he did, because of the VA Hospital at Fort Lyon. He was offered the job teaching agriculture at Las Animas High School, where he stayed until he retired in 2003.
He was often asked why he stayed in Las Animas so long. “The community made us stay,” he explained. “It was a thriving community then, with three new car dealerships, Gamble’s, J.C. Penney, and the agriculture was fantastic.” At that time sugar beets, vegetables, and for a while, soybeans were being grown, along with the raising of cattle, sheep, and pigs. ”There were license plates that said, ‘Bent County—the Breadbasket of the Colorado.’ “ But then water was sold off.
However, Las Animas was now home, and the Donkles stayed, raising Michelle and son Greg. Karen continued nursing, working at public health, the prison, and the VA clinics in La Junta and Pueblo. Now a nurse practitioner, she works as a school nurse for Las Animas School District, and owns the Bag Lady Boutique, a resale shop. “She’s been a nurse for 53 years,” he said, proudly, explaining that she retired once but then got bored and went back to work.
In June they’ll have lived in Las Animas for 50 years, “I think I’m a native. Maybe,” he said, smiling. After retirement, Chuck has remained active in the community, getting involved in the Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis Club, running a Young Farmers program, and being on the John W. Rawlings Heritage Center board. He was also on the Las Animas City Council, where he served as representative for the Development Foundation and Southeast Colorado Development Foundation.
Several years ago, Chuck saw a need that he could do something about. Because there were no storage facilities in town, he bought the old Ford dealership building. Soon was nearly filled with other people’s belongings—boats, campers, and many other miscellaneous belongings, big and small. The collateral in that building allowed him to start his mini storage business, which he built in three stages, and still runs.
Last June, despite some serious health issues which landed him in the hospital, Chuck was able to attend the Colorado FFA Convention in Pueblo to receive his Owl award. “I was surprised I received the award, and quite honored to have one of my students nominate me and present it to me,” he said. In September, he was inducted into the Legendary Owl Society at a celebration held by the Colorado FFA Foundation.
Karen and Chuck Donkle and their daughter Michelle at the Legendary Owl induction celebration this fall. Photo courtesy Colorado Ag Foundation
Chuck was nominated by Las Animas native Matt Sinclair. “I think Matt took ag his freshman year because his dad (Bill) was such a good friend of mine,” he explained. But Matt continued taking ag classes all four years in high school and started a beekeeping business as an ag project.
Graduating from Las Animas High School in 1989, Matt went on to Adams State College, majoring in industrial arts. He taught industrial arts at Sanford High School for several years. He then moved to Sangre De Cristo High School in Mosca, where he taught industrial arts for a couple of years before starting the agricultural program there, which has been successful. 34 of the 50 students in the school are in the ag program, he said. Matt also received the Legendary Owl award a couple of years ago.
The Legendary Owl award occupying a place of honor in the Donkle home.
Mentoring was obviously one of Chuck’s strong points. At least 12 student teachers worked with him during his career: “My second year of teaching, I was assigned the first female ag education student to graduate from CSU.” He continues to sing the praises of the FFA organization. “There are close to one million students in the (national) program now,” he said. “It brings students together with a common interest.”
But let’s not forget the Studebaker fascination. He’s currently president of the Southeast Colorado Studebaker Club, a member of the Southeast Colorado Antique Vehicle Club, and is on the board of directors for the International Studebaker Club. He coordinated the local activities for National Drive Your Studebaker Day in September 2020. (see https://seconews.org/article/239). Last June, the north central zone meet and car show was held in La Junta, which he also coordinated. ( https://seconews.org/article/4344)
He currently owns, in various stages of restoration, more than 50 Studebakers, of which he says, “almost 10 are running.” He’s always on the lookout for more cars and parts. His first purchase was a blue 1949 Studebaker pickup in the early 70s, which he found while visiting one of his student’s ag projects. Later he bought a red 1962 Studebaker pickup. (https://seconews.org/article/2014). He finished restoring the first one in 2004. “It’s like putting a puzzle together—you take each part out, label all the pieces and put them in plastic bags.” He proudly related that his son Greg, who has degrees in auto restoration and auto collision, painted the blue one.
Both Greg and Michelle are married and have provided Chuck and Karen with six grandchildren. Greg has a son and daughter. Michelle has four sons, including a set of twins.
One would think that his various projects would keep Chuck busy enough (and one gets the feeling that Karen just might feel that way). However, last year Chuck bought the car wash in Las Animas. “I wanted to give something back to the community that they could be proud of,” he explained, noting that it’s now completely restored, with the help of a young man he hired. When he bought it, only one bay was working and none of the vacuums worked. “I took it on as a challenge in my younger age,” he laughed.
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