Don Calkins Remembered
Born May 13, 1939 in Los Angeles California, he entered a world that looked to many like it may be rolling off a great precipice. He grew up moving between different rental properties near Monrovia California. As a kid he and his siblings enjoyed finding places to play in areas around old orange groves, and in rock and gravel pits near Bradbury Lane.
In the 1950’s he would ride in his dad’s old Model A pickup with his siblings Ken, Arlene, David, and Edie, who all piled in the back to go fishing from the jetty at Newport Beach. After having enough of fishing the three brothers would compete to bodysurf the biggest wave of the day at a now famous spot called “The Wedge”.
Don could see his parents Helen, and Casey could use all the help they could get in 1953 when they bought their first house on East Russell Street in Azusa. They constantly struggled to keep up with the mortgage payments. As a result, Don took on as many paper routes in the Monrovia, Arcadia, Duarte neighborhoods as he could handle on his bicycle in the morning. After school he pulled a power mower behind his bicycle to do yard work for people who had little time or patience for that kind of thing. He and his siblings were surprised they would have a baby brother Dennis born in 1956.
At fifteen Don was working at Clifford Nutt’s Imported Cars on Foothill Boulevard in Monrovia. He enjoyed washing new Jaguars, Austin Healeys, and MGs on the lot after school and dreaming of getting his license. One day a 1941 Ford business coupe showed up on the Nutt’s lot that had been traded in by a customer, Don was still too young to drive. He asked Mr. Nutt if he could buy the Ford on payments, and his boss said “we can make something work”.
After graduating from Citrus Union High School in Azusa in 1957, Don drove the forty-one Ford to La Verne College, following the advice of his older brother Ken. At La Verne he soon met Jean Switzer, who he would marry in the summer of 1960. Jean could see he was handsome, had a pretty car, and was going to school to get a teaching credential. Don was not a bad prospect for a girl from Waterford California. He began working after classes at Frank Johnson’s Texaco on Bonita Avenue in La Verne. There Don learned the art of being a “service-man” from Frank Johnson himself, who handed him the keys to close up on his very first day. Pumping gas, washing windshields with a chamois cloth, checking oil, and patching flats all came like second nature to a young man who worked at Nutt’s as a kid. Don and Jean’s son Rhett was born in Pomona in 1961 while the newlyweds still lived in La Verne near the college.
Once Don completed his teaching credential at La Verne, he moved to Waterford California and bought a small home near Jean’s parents, Ralph and Jessie Switzer. Don’s first teaching job was at Chatom elementary, West of Turlock. They lived in Waterford for just a few years, and their son Scott was born in 1963.
In 1966 Don and Jean moved to a beautiful two-story farmhouse on Beckwith Road in Modesto. When they moved into the big farmhouse on an acre of land carved out of a peach orchard, the couple brought with them their newborn son Kelly. Soon enough Don began projects in the yard that would make it an outdoor adventureland for his three small sons. Don built a fort, a two-story treehouse with a fire pole, a pirate ship, swings, and a 16-foot slide among other things to keep himself and the boys busy. Everything Don built was made from salvage material that came from neighbors’ trash piles, or the dumpster bin at McWilliams lumber.
In the 1960’s and early 70’s, the Beckwith backyard adventureland became a gathering site for friends and family. All of Don and Jean’s siblings brought their children over to play in the yard. It would be difficult to count the number of people entertained in the yard during those years, including the people who were inspired to create the Modesto Peace Center in 1970. They were invited to hold their first meeting in the yard at Beckwith. Don was not the only one upset about the assassination of Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy in 1968, as well as the ugly events unfolding in Vietnam. The Modesto Peace Center gave Don and others hope that they could do some small part to end the cycle of violence.
Don taught elementary school in the Sylvan District from the time he moved to Beckwith, and brought many groups of sixth grade students to the yard to work on wood carving, or painting projects after school. Beckwith was beautiful and Don knew it, but what he dreamed of since childhood was to own a real working farm like the ones that had been home to orange groves in Monrovia and Azusa in the 1950’s.
Don found a run-down farm of 25 acres in West Modesto in 1974 and the family moved. Jean and the three boys were not too excited to leave the beautiful Beckwith wonderland behind for something that looked like it may take fifty years of hard work.
The farm on Ohio Avenue in Modesto was Don’s greatest adventure. He began farming oats, corn, and alfalfa while he was still teaching for Sylvan School District. His sons helped as best they could to stack hay to sell to local horse ranches near the farm. In the early 1980’s the field crops were replaced by an almond orchard and Don came as close as he would get to the orange groves of his childhood. Don learned over time to do anything necessary to farming, like repair a tractor, or chainsaw, raise a windmill, or build his own barn, he imagined anything was doable when you put your mind to it. What he loved most was working with a shovel, or rake in his hands from morning till dark. He cared for his trees on those 25 acres until the evening before he died when he was out visiting the beekeeper who had brought a couple extra hives. On the morning of February 20, 2023, he passed away in front of his woodstove before lighting a fire for Jean.
Don is survived by his brothers Ken, David, and Dennis, as well as his wife Jean and their three sons, Rhett (and daughter in law Penny), Scott (and daughter in law Sherry), and Kelly. Don is also survived by grandsons Craig, Ben, Casey, as well as granddaughters Janet and Grace. If that were not enough, he has a great granddaughter MJ Watts born just a year ago to Janet Watts (Calkins) and Martin Watts. Don knew for nearly all of his 83 years he had been lucky, he led the good life.