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Donald J. Leu  (1923 - 2002)

My mother was the most caring person I ever knew and my father was the most remarkable.  After growing up desperately poor during the Great Depression, my dad fought in World War II and then, through determination and hard work, became one of the leading educational planners in the U.S.  He planned, during the course of his long career, dozens of public schools in the U.S. and in developing countries around the world but never bragged about his many accolades or awards, being chronically humble.  Some of those awards now cover the walls of his den from which I'm writing this entry, four months after his passing.


My father had an insatiable curiosity and an irrepressible sense of adventure.  He was, for example, the only person I ever knew who had traveled to all seven continents.  That includes Antarctica, which he visited a few years ago.  When he was 67, he sailed alone over 1,000 miles from Washington to Alaska on his 40-foot sailboat, and last summer, at age 78, he went on an overnight backpacking trip in the mountains with his kids and grandkids.  He was also very kind and compassionate towards others, had a great sense of humor and was extremely modest.  In fact, wherever he is right now I'm sure he would be embarrassed about this entry that I'm writing about him.


Despite his lofty accomplishments, though, my dad hated pretension and anything that smacked of elitism or snobbishness.  He wasn't keen on fraternities, stuffy golf clubhouses or the D.A.R.  He was, instead, very down-to-earth and egalitarian-minded.  He strongly believed that people should be judged based on their character and their accomplishments, not on how much money they had, what they looked like, what family they came from, or what color their skin was.  And he taught all of his children, including me, to embrace those same values.


This was the funniest moment of the six-week sailing trip that my dad and I took to Alaska in 1989.  Fortunately I caught it on videotape.  This is part of an 80-minute movie that I made of that trip.

My dad was very proud of the chicken dinner he'd cooked in Wrangell, Alaska until he put it on the swiveled stove.

2 minutes, 17 seconds


The Early Years

Above:  The Leu family in 1927 in Ballard, Washington (Don is front row, left).  Back row:  Dorothy, Lucille, Don's mother and father, and their Aunt Elsie.  Front Row:  Don, Bill, Eileen, and George.

My dad, the youngest child in a family of six children, was born in Seattle, Washington in 1923 and grew up in the nearby town of Ballard.  His grandfather, a man named Georg Leu, had emigrated from Switzerland to Ohio in 1880 under rather shady circumstances.  Apparently young Georg had gotten into an argument with his brothers in Switzerland about a family inheritance, stole $400, made his way to the coast of France, and snuck onboard a ship bound for America.  Once in the U.S., Georg Leu (who, being Swiss, pronounced his name "Gay-org Loy") made his way to Ohio, married, had several children and owned a butcher shop in Cleveland.  From what I understand, he was quite a character.


Georg's oldest child was my dad's father, George Leu, who was much quieter than his outgoing father.  When my grandfather George was a teenager, around 1905, he played professional baseball in Cleveland without telling his parents because they strongly disapproved of the roguish sport.  Unfortunately though, young George got hit in the head one day with a fastball, was sent to the hospital, and his gig was up. 


Above:  The Leu family in 1931 at the Seattle Airport before their first plane ride.  Don, age 9, is front row, left.

A few years later around 1910, George Leu, now in his early 20s, hopped on a train and headed out to Seattle in search of his younger brother, Cliff, who had run away from their home in Cleveland after a family dispute.  George found Cliff working at the newly-opened (and now famous) Pike Place Market in Seattle and both decided to stay in Seattle rather than return to Cleveland.  A few years later, George married a boisterous but loving woman named Minnie May Plane and they eventually had six kids, my dad being the youngest.


George Leu, my dad's father, was a quiet and studious man who loved children and worked hard to support his growing family.  At one time, he was a traveling salesman, then a butcher, and then finally a grocer in Ballard, a largely-Norwegian suburb on the north side of Seattle.  During the 1920s, George became the first president of a group of independent grocers named P.S.Q. (Puget Sound Quality), which later became the I.G.A.  A kind man, George extended a great deal of credit to his customers, but after the stock market crashed in 1929, his customers weren't able to pay him back and his grocery store eventually went bankrupt.

Hard Times During the Depression

Above:  Don, age 12 (left, with humorous expression) with his mother and brother Bill in Skykomish in 1935.

The Great Depression hit my dad's family's hard.  During the 1920s, the Leu household was solidly middle-class, but by the early 1930s, after George lost his grocery store, they were barely scraping by.  Desperate for work, George moved his family to the small logging town of Skykomish, Washington, in the Cascade Mountains sixty miles east of Seattle, and there he established a grocery store called "Leu's Market," which he would operate for the next 30 years.  At that time, the Leu family, including my dad, lived in a shack near town with barely enough money to survive. 


As my dad recounted years later, they lived in extreme poverty during the 1930s in Skykomish.  He enjoyed living there, however, and went fishing and hiking in the mountains, worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.), and starred on the Skykomish High School basketball team, leading them to a 27-7 record and a regional championship in his junior year.


Back in those days, job opportunities in tiny Skykomish were limited to either logging or working on the railroad that came through town, neither of which appealed to my dad.  Instead, he decided to become a teacher, so after graduating from Skykomish High School in 1941, he scraped up enough money to attend Western Washington Teacher's College (now Western Washington University) in Bellingham, a few hours north.


Above:   Don's senior portrait at Skykomish High School (1941).

Three months after my dad entered Western, in December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, which immediately changed his plans.  The following day, my dad went to the recruiting office in Bellingham to sign up for the U.S. Navy.  Since he was in college, however, the recruiter suggested that he join the Navy Reserve, stay in school for another year, and then enter the Navy's Officer Training School, instead of becoming an enlisted man. 


Taking the recruiter's advice, my dad stayed in college for another year and then joined the Navy as an officer recruit.  In 1943, after finishing his sophomore year at Western Washington, the Navy sent him to Dickinson, North Dakota.  The Navy had recently converted the small teacher's college there (now Dickinson State University) into a Navy V-12 Officer's Training School one of dozens that had popped up around the country to train Naval officers quickly and get them to the front lines.  Passing this six-month classroom program was the first step to becoming a Naval officer, though many recruits washed out.


My dad, a Navy cadet, arrived in Dickinson on July 2 and the next evening, at a U.S.O. welcoming dance held in Dickinson to honor the new recruits, he met my mom, Anne.  She initially didn't want to go to the dance but was talked into it by her girlfriend, both of whom had just graduated from high school in North Dakota.  My parents married a few months later but kept it a secret, since Navy officer candidates at that time had to be single.

World War II and China

Above:  Skating with my mom shortly after they met in North Dakota (1943).

After finishing his Navy V-12 classroom school work at Dickinson, North Dakota in early 1944, my dad was sent to Navy Midshipman School at Northwestern University in Chicago near Lake Michigan, the final step in the officer training program.  He received hands-on training there and graduated in July 1944, receiving his officer's commission.  He then volunteered for an  elite Special Operations group the Navy was forming called "Scouts and Raiders" (later to become the Navy SEALs).  The newly-commissioned Ensign Leu was sent to Fort Pierce, Florida, home of the Scouts and Raiders training base.  Don and Anne arrived in Fort Pierce in the fall of 1944 and shortly afterwards they married a second time, this time in public to make it official. 


The Scouts and Raiders program was highly competitive and many volunteers washed out.  On his first day of training, the Navy took Don and his group of 70 recruits one mile offshore in a ship and told them all to swim ashore.  About half the group couldn't make it and were dismissed from the program, but Don, utterly exhausted, stumbled ashore.  During his six months of training in Fort Pierce, my dad learned underwater demolition, espionage, special weapons, and hand-to-hand combat.  And, for reasons that would become apparent later, he also learned to speak Chinese.


He nearly drowned one night during the intense training at Fort Pierce.  While paddling with a group in a rubber raft on a moonless night, he was smacked hard in the face with a paddle by the fellow in front of him and tumbled backward and unconscious into the ocean.  Fortunately though, one of his buddies dove into the water and just managed to snag him and pull him up to the surface.  His nose was always crooked ever afterwards and he lost his sense of smell from that incident.


Above:  In Fort Pierce, Florida in early 1945 with my mom (right) and her mother (left). 

In June of 1945, my dad, now a Lt. Commander, was shipped to Calcutta, India and spent the last few months of World War II in China, one of the least known theatres of the war.  He was part of a 4,000-man group called SACO (the Sino-American Cooperative Organization), a joint effort between the U.S. Navy and the Chinese Nationalist Army, during which he worked side-by-side with the Chinese armed forces while training them in guerrilla warfare.


Like many veterans who served in World War II, my dad never talked much about his combat experience.  We knew it affected him deeply though, because he suffered nightmares for the rest of his life from his service.  During the last few weeks of his life, he finally told me a few stories about the war and almost in a confessional way.  Last November, a few weeks before he died, my dad and I were driving on the freeway back to his house one afternoon and he suggested we stop at a Denny's coffee shop to get a bite to eat.  While we were waiting for our food, my dad told me about his first combat experience, a story he had probably never told anyone. 


Above:  My dad (second from left) in a L.A. nightclub with his Navy buddies the night before they shipped out to India in June 1945.  This was one of his favorite photos.

He explained to me that, since the Japanese had closed all the seaports in China during the war, he got into China the "back way," on a Navy truck convoy over the newly-opened Burma Road, an important supply line linking China with Burma, India and the rest of the world.  His convoy stopped one night in the jungles of Burma at a site that had been besieged every night by an elusive Japanese sniper.  My dad volunteered for guard duty that night while the rest of his crew slept. 


That night by moonlight, my dad spotted the sniper creeping towards the American troops, so my dad raised his rifle and shot him.  Dad ran over to the sniper, who was lying dead on the ground, and searched the sniper's body.  He found a locket with a picture of a young Japanese woman inside, evidently the sniper's bride.  I'm sure it reminded him of his young wife, Anne, who was patiently waiting for him back in America.  "And that," my dad told me somberly, "was when I learned that war isn't fun."


My dad arrived in China in August 1945 and was placed in charge of training 1,200 Chinese guerrillas in a U.S. Navy base called Happy Valley, a few miles outside the capital city of Chungking.  He had become somewhat fluent in Mandarin by this time, which helped.  Speaking of that, he used his semi-fluency with great effect years later in the U.S., especially when phoning ahead for reservations at popular Chinese restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown, near where we lived.  Imagine the look on the face of the maitre d' when he saw seven Caucasians with the Chinese-sounding name "Leu" walking into the restaurant, including one who actually spoke Chinese.  Thanks to dad, we always got great tables!


Above:  Traveling on the Burma Road heading into China in 1945.

But getting back to China:  One of my dad's duties during World War II was to infiltrate Japanese lines and report back on what he saw.  Actually, there really weren't any formal "lines" because China was too large for the Japanese Army to totally occupy.  Instead, the Japanese controlled the major seaports and rail centers, while leaving the rest of China to the Chinese. 


In his role, my dad dressed up as a Chinese peasant (complete with straw hat and sandals) and wandered through Japanese-controlled towns while spying on the enemy.  How he was able to successfully disguise himself as a Chinese I'll never know.  He also helped Chinese troops engage in guerrilla warfare, such as blowing up Japanese railroad depots.  My jaw dropped last fall when he told me some of these stories.  


My dad stayed in China for several months after the end of World War II, working with the Chinese Nationalist troops.  In fact, the leading military commander in China, General Tai Li, offered him a lucrative position there if he wanted to stay.  Tai Li wanted my dad to prepare the Chinese Nationalist troops to fight the Chinese Communists, who were threatening the Nationalists from northern China after the end of the war.  My mom, however, was in the U.S. at the time and had no desire to move to China, so my dad returned home, arriving in March of 1946.  That's fortunate because General Tai Li died in a plane crash a year later and in 1949, the Communist forces took over China.


Above:  Telegram from Don in 1946 on his Navy ship in the Pacific telling Anne that he was coming home.

My dad's experience in China had a profound impact on him.  For a kid who had grown up in a small logging town in Washington, China was a totally different world and for the rest of his life, he thought fondly about his experience there and about the Chinese he had met and worked with.


Not having seen China since World War II, he returned in 1997, this time with my mom, his brother Bill and Bill's wife, on a guided tour with about 30 other Americans, and one afternoon their group stopped at a museum in Chungking.  Dad explained to the museum's curator, a Chinese man in his 30s who spoke broken English, that he had been stationed in Happy Valley with SACO during World War II.  The curator was intrigued by my dad's story, then pondered something and told my dad to wait there and quickly left the museum.  My father was puzzled.


The curator returned to the museum about ten minutes later accompanied by an elderly Chinese gentleman.  This elderly man, as it turned out, had been one of my dad's 1,200 guerrilla students back in 1945.  Although my dad didn't remember his former pupil, the Chinese gentleman remembered my dad fondly and started crying because he was so happy to see my father again after more than 50 years.  My dad told me later, getting a bit emotional, that it was wonderful to see China again, but that seeing his former student in Chungking was the highlight of the trip.



Above left:  As a Navy officer cadet in Dickinson, North Dakota in 1943.

Above center:  And one year later, as a newly-commissioned naval officer.  This is Ensign Leu at Northwestern University in July 1944.

Above right:  My dad in his "Navy whites."



Above left:  Don (center) at Navy Scouts and Raiders training in Fort Pierce, Florida in April 1945.  This was the first color photo taken of him.

Above right:  And a few months later in China.  Don is second from the left.  His lifelong friend, Walt Lowell, is on the right.



Above left:  In Chungking, China with "Charlie," the editor of the newspaper there.  My dad feared that Charlie, being an editor and person of influence, was likely killed after the Communists took over China in 1949.

Above center:  My dad at the Navy's camp at Happy Valley near Chungking in 1945.  He wrote on the back, "Me on a motorcycle.  Sometimes we can't agree on which way to go."

Above right:  He spent several months training Chinese Nationalists troops to fight the Japanese.  This is at Happy Valley near Chungking.

Michigan State, San Jose State, then Portland State

After Don returned from World War II in 1946, he and Anne moved to Bellingham, Washington where he resumed his studies at Western Washington Teacher's College that had been interrupted by the war.  He completed his bachelor's degree a year later and got a job teaching at a rural elementary school in North Bonneville, in southern Washington along the Columbia River.  He had bigger dreams, though, and a few years later the Leu family now with children Dottie, Don Jr. and Dave moved east where Don pursued his doctorate at Columbia University in New York City with help from the G.I. Bill, graduating in 1953. 


A year later, Don was offered a job as an assistant professor of Education at Michigan State University and the family moved to East Lansing.  He taught at Michigan State for 14 years interspersed with two one-year stints:  in 1957 he served as the interim Deputy Superintendent of Education for the state of Michigan, the second-highest educational position in the state, and in 1964 he guest-taught at U.C. Berkeley in California.  Looking to move west, in 1968 he accepted the position as Dean of the School of Education at San Jose State University in California. 


Above:  The Leu family at our house in San Jose in 1968.  That's me on the right.

I was a little kid in East Lansing when my dad got the job offer in California.  I didn't want to leave Michigan at first, but his offer of a shiny, new bicycle enticed me.  Now I'm very glad we moved because my life wouldn't have been nearly as interesting, I think, if we had stayed in the Midwest.  California was a whole new world.  


We lived in San Jose from 1968 until 1980 and I have a lot of fond memories of that time.  Growing up in San Jose in the late 1960s and 1970s was idyllic.  The south Bay Area today known as Silicon Valley was so different and so much more pleasant and bucolic (and affordable!) than today.  My sister, Dottie, and her family had moved to Hayward nearby and my two older brothers visited us often.  My parents, and especially my mother, years later looked back on that time as our family's "golden era," with all their kids at home, nearby or visiting frequently.


My dad started looking for new challenges, though, and in 1980, a few years after I'd gone off to college and my parents had become empty nesters, he accepted the position of Dean of the School of Education at Portland State University, so he and Anne moved to Portland.  He greatly enjoyed PSU, much more than San Jose State, and taught there until 1986 when he retired.  Well, sort of. 



Above left:  Don with his fourth and fifth grade classes in North Bonneville, Washington in 1947, his first teaching job.

Above center:  The Leu family in Shanks Village, New York in 1950 while Don was studying for his doctorate at Columbia University.  Those are my older siblings Don Jr., Dave and Dottie.

Above right:  This is how I remember my childhood:  in the back seat of a station wagon roaming across America each summer.



Above left:  The growing Leu family in the early 1960s.  That's my brother Dwight on the left and I'm somewhat distracted on the right.

Above right:  Don being interviewed on the "Today" show in 1967 on a segment about educational planning.



Above left:  During the summer of 1967 we hiked for three days over Park Creek Pass in Washington.  That's me in the front carrying a bottle of ketchup (don't ask me why).  Our family was always doing something crazy and adventurous.

Above right:  My parents in Honduras in 1968 while visiting property they had bought on the island of Roatan.



Above left:  My brothers Dwight and Don with my dad (with the tiller) in 1970 in San Francisco Bay.  They taught themselves how to sail in this little boat.

Above right:  My dad at San Jose State University in 1970.



Left:  Don (left) with his siblings in 1973. 

Left to right in chronological order:  Don, Bill, Eileen, George, Dorothy and Lucille. 

This was the last photo taken of all six Leu children together.




Above left:  My dad had a great sense of humor.  He's enjoying himself here in Sausalito, California.

Above right:  Being attacked by a friendly cockatiel in Portland in 1985.

Living the Good Life

Above:  My dad and mom on their new 40-foot Ilikai II sailboat in 1986.  This was one of my dad's favorite photos.

My parents, after leaving Portland in 1986, spent a few years figuring out where they wanted to live in retirement and trying to determine, as my dad put it, what the "good life" was for them.   Always the planner, my dad constantly emphasized having goals.  He also believed that the main goal in life is figuring out, and then living, what he called "the good life."  The "good life" is different for each person:  perhaps it's having a lot of money, raising a large family, lying on a beach, or dedicating your life to a noble cause.  But before a person can live the good life, he told me, they need to figure out what that means for them.


In 1990 my parents decided to move back to Bellingham, where they had started their lives together 44 years earlier.  My dad wasn't finished with education, though.  He continued working on educational projects through a small consulting firm he started up, conducting superintendent searches for school districts around the country.  He was also elected to the Bellingham School Board in his late 70s and served there from 1999 until 2001.  He ran for the position in 1999 a few months after Anne died, a blow from which he never recovered.  I think he figured that serving on the board would partly replace the tremendous loss he felt and would provide some meaning and purpose to his life.  But I'm skipping ahead. 


Above:  My parents, Anne and Don, at their home in Bellingham in 1993.

My dad was always passionate about public education.  He helped create dozens of public schools in the U.S. and around the world during his well-traveled career while working extensively in Thailand, Belgium, Germany, Burma, Guatemala, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, and probably a few dozen other countries that I can't recall.  Rather than imposing American attitudes on others and on the schools he established overseas, he learned about the local cultures and integrated their needs and values into the schools, a reflection of his general approach to life.  And he spent a great deal of time during his last four years working (for free) on a plan to reserve an elementary school site in his community in Bellingham, a project he worked on until, literally, the day before he died. 


Outside of his professional pursuits, he had lots of personal interests and hobbies, especially sailing.  Being a Navy man, he loved being out on the water and he bought his first sailboat, a 14-footer, in 1970.  He taught himself how to sail in that boat out on the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay, then upscaled to a 24-footer a few years later, then a 28-footer, followed by his dream sailboat, a 40-foot Panda pilothouse that he named the Ilikai II, which he bought in 1985. 


He sailed the Ilikai throughout the Puget Sound, down to Portland, and in the summer of 1988, and with Anne, his son Don and their family, up to the Queen Charlotte Islands off the northern coast of British Columbia.  In his most ambitious adventure, he sailed 1,000 miles from Washington up to Alaska by himself in the summer of 1989.  I flew up to Juneau and met him there, then together we spent the next six weeks sailing 1,500 miles throughout southern Alaska and back down to Washington, an unforgettable journey.  My brother Dwight joined us for a week on the adventure as we sailed through Glacier Bay and on to Sitka. 


Above:  Receiving the 1994 "Distinguished Alumnus" award at Western Washington University.

He sold the Ilikai in 1995 and retired from sailing, shifting his interest to golf and the 18-hole course near his house.  Back in 1943 he shot a hole-in-one during the second time he ever played golf, on a course in Bellingham that's now a grocery store, but never again. 


In addition to his career, of course, he helped Anne raise their family.  Being adventurous, he taught his five children to never be afraid of new challenges and to instead seek them out.  He led us on countless family expeditions, which we  look back on with (mostly) great fondness.  Every summer when I was young, my parents would load our station wagon with the five kids, then we would go charging across North America in search of new adventures.  Indeed, it was his constant desire for adventure that inspired me to quit my steady job of 10 years in 2001 and go traveling for the past two years, a journey that I've documented in this website.


My father will be remembered professionally for his passionate dedication to field of education and personally for his kindness and decency, as well as his unbounded sense of humor and adventure.  He was an inspiration to everyone who knew him and we all miss him greatly.



Left:  Sailing the Ilikai in Glacier Bay, Alaska with his son Dwight in 1989.




Above left:  Sharing a laugh with Dwight in 1994 at his Western Washington University award ceremony.  That's a picture of my dad in college.

Above right:  Visiting Antarctica in 1996.  A global explorer, he visited all seven continents and, with Anne, rafted down several rivers including the Amazon and the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.



Above left:  Visiting a museum in Chungking, China, his first visit to China since he had served in the Navy during World War II.  He met one of his former combat students here, a Chinese gentleman he hadn't seen in over 50 years.

Above right:  Backpacking with me in 1997 at age 74.  I ruined the trip, though, by slipping on a mossy log and breaking my arm.



Left:  This was the last photo taken of my parents, in Las Vegas in 1999.  My mom died about a month later.  




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