A right to die, a will to live
Don James — not Donald, just Don, after his grandfather — was born in Portland in 1926. A third-generation Oregonian, he grew up in a tiny house across the street from the bulb fields of a commercial florist. As a child, he became very ill and nearly died at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. But, it wasn’t his time.
Each summer those fields across Division Street were full of daffodils, tulips, and workers who were students at Reed.
“They were always touting the college,” James recollected, “so it was always in the back of my mind.”
By age 16, before he’d even driven a car, he was operating a crane on the graveyard shift in the wartime frenzy of the Oregon shipyards. James would get off work at 7 a.m. and show up at Franklin High in his coveralls. The principal often told him he was “a disgrace and a bad example,” but James paid the principal — and school — little mind. He barely graduated before enlisting in the U.S. Navy.
James was stationed at Seattle Naval Hospital, where, on Christmas Eve, 1944, he met Claire, a fellow pharmacists’ mate who had graduated from Portland’s Lincoln High. That connection was all it took, and in a few weeks they were engaged.
James was on the list to ship out near the end of the war. He could well have found himself at Iwo Jima, where thousands died. But somehow his name came off the list. Again, it wasn’t his time. “I never found out why I wasn’t shipped out,” James said. “Claire and I had decided to get married, so maybe someone in personnel knew that and gave us a break.”
In the Navy, James became a serious student for the first time, and after the war he did well enough in two years at the University of Portland to be accepted by Reed in 1948.
“I wouldn’t have made it through without Claire,” he said. “At Reed, the G.I. Bill paid my tuition and gave us $90 per month living expenses for the two of us and our two-year-old son. It wasn’t easy. Claire typed every paper I wrote, including my senior thesis, which she worked on as she was about to give birth to our second son. There were many mornings when we greeted the sunrise together after working all night.”
Originally, James had thought about being a psychiatrist. But with a young and growing family he didn’t know how to finance medical school, so he studied education and biology and decided to become a teacher.
His first job was at Creston Elementary School in Southeast Portland. He’d never trained for elementary education, which became something of a pattern. In all his years in education, he never got to teach a single class in the field for which he was trained: biology. But he never regretted the Creston job, even when his less-than-astute boss grouped the slowest 8th-graders and the brightest 7th-graders into a single class, forcing James to teach everything from 5th-grade work to 10th-grade work.
Two years later, James moved to Washington High, where he again taught subjects he knew nothing about — and coached sports about which he knew even less. He learned as he taught, took master’s classes at night, worked hard. He and Claire had two more children. By 1960 he was, at 34, one of the youngest high school principals in the Portland public schools.