By Brandon Hansen/The Independent Staff
Chewelah woke up on Monday, Oct. 17 to news that one of their most active community members had passed away. Don McLaughlin, the executive director of the Chewelah Center for the Arts, passed away at age 66 when he collapsed on the basement stairs at his home and suffered accidental death due to a traumatic head injury.
An outpouring of support and memories by the community about Don’s impact immediately began popping up on social media and day-to-day conversations around town.
“Don was extraordinarily involved, a force of nature giving the rest of us a taste of the beauty of life,” his family said in the obituary submitted to the newspaper.
McLaughlin’s list of contributions are both numerous and impressive. Since retiring from teaching theatre at Eastern Washington University, McLaughlin helped immensely with the Chewelah Performing and Cultural Arts Board (PACA). He served as Executive Director and recently worked with Tait Towers and former Chewelah graduate Matt Hales to get a donation of $140,000 in moveable staging equipment.
McLaughlin also became heavily involved with the historical community as a member of the Heritage Network and the Chewelah and Stevens County historical societies. One of his big projects was retracing the Ft. Colville Military Road from the pioneer days in Washington and helping restore the Indian Agency Building in Chewelah which dates back well into the 1800s.
“Don did a lot of work on the military road project and has been very involved in the work on the Indian Agency cabin,” the Stevens County Historical Society posted on their Facebook page. “This is a big loss for our society.”
McLaughlin also advised the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Language and Culture Department on theatrical productions. For the past six years, Don had trained students from various Pacific Northwest tribes to use theatrical control of their bodies, voice and minds to tell stories.
Don moved to Chewelah 23 years ago with his wife, Janet and three children Jessica, Cory and Leigh.
Don was a professor at the Eastern Washington University theatre department for 11 years, winning the Ed Yarwood Award Outstanding Faculty Member award ten times.
Students of his program can remember many long tough hours in fight class, working on sets that were far above collegiate production standards and, of course, performing in many productions.
“It’s safe to say that no single person has had a greater impact on my life,” former EWU student Jess Thomas said in a Facebook post. “He was my sensei in karate, taught me nearly everything I know about theatre, and much more about life. He was the walking personification of passion, and taught me to put all of my being into my art. He was the first person to believe in me as a playwright, and stoked those fires for more than four years.”
While being a professor at Eastern, and making the drive between Cheney and Chewelah many, many times, McLaughlin also helped out greatly with StageTime Theatre and school productions as well. Along with his wife Janet, the two inspired, educated and honed the skills of many aspiring Chewelah theatre students.
“I’ve known Janet since I joined StageTime Theatre at the age of 11,” Chewelah Student Stephanie Fulford said in a Facebook comment. “I often compared her to my own mother: strong, brilliant, compassionate, inspiring – basically everything I long to be. And then I met Don, and it was like seeing two puzzle pieces fit together. A talented, dedicated couple, ready to share their brilliance with whomever came their way.”
Born in Cody, Wyoming in 1950, McLaughlin’s life spanned many states, countries and affected many people. He was raised in Augusta, KS and went to college at Everett Community College and then transferred to Eastern Washington University.
At EWU is where he met Janet and the two would go on to perform in the Southeast Asia USO tour. They were married on June 2, 1973.
After touring in the USO, Don worked as a stagehand during Spokane’s World’s Fair in 1974 and was also the set and design director for the Spokane Civic Theatre.
Between 1979-1993, he was the executive director of the Grandstreet Theatre in Helena, Montana where he had a big impact on their community as well.
“His legacy and foundational leadership of Grandstreet Theatre will benefit generations to come,” the Montana theatre said about Don on their Facebook page. “This was a great man and we will miss him dearly. Our love and support goes out to Janet, Jessica, Cory and Leigh.”
Grandstreet Theatre will be holding an event in Helena on Nov. 3 to memorialize Don.
The McLaughlin family held a small funeral service for Don last Saturday. They also had a viewing for Don where friends from the Kalispel tribe honored him through prayer and song in their native Salish language and sent his spirit off with a traditional drum song. The McLaughlin family then spread his ashes on the family farm and his favorite hunting spot: Eagle Mountain.
They have also planned, along with PACA, a celebration of life memorial service on December 30 at 6 p.m. at the Chewelah Center for the Arts. People are asked to bring their own folding chair, Don-style hat, baseball jersey or theatre shirt, and a plaid scarf. They are also asked to bring photos and videos, and share any stories about Don.
Pictures, videos and stories can also be sent to Jessica Sety by Dec. 1 at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In lieu of flowers, the McLaughlin family is asking for people to donate to PACA.
Donations in Don’s name can be sent to PACA at PO Box 1113, Chewelah, WA 99109
“He will be missed by each one of us so very much,” PACA’s Sharon Ludwig said. “We are so used to turning to him for advice. We want people to know ‘the show is not over!’ We will continue to work to help us realize Don’s dream of building a first class performing arts facility in Chewelah.”