Despite many different trials and tribulations, Don Brinker, Villa Ridge, always wears a smile.
He earned the nickname “Grinner” as a basketball player in high school, and his cheery disposition and good humor have kept it with him ever since.
Don’s wife Diana says he is always ready to lend a helping hand and has a hard time telling anyone in need the word no.
Don was born Sept. 24, 1949, in Villa Ridge and is the oldest of five. He and his family lived on a small farm of 24 acres where he and his siblings took care of chickens, cows and hogs.
“Being the oldest was hard because you had to be the example,” Don said. “The parents are more strict because they want to get it right. It had its perks and its downfalls but it was fine.”
He attended St. John’s-Gildehaus Grade School and then graduated from Washington High School.
Don then went to work for AB Chance and got the opportunity to attend Washington University night school through the company. However, the company quickly laid off many workers, which cut Don’s time at the university short.
Don joined the Army Reserves in 1968 and stayed for 21 years, eventually retiring as a first sergeant.
“When I first got in it was really scary because Vietnam was really cranked up,” he said. “You didn’t know what was going to happen. There was any amount of days that they could’ve said this unit is going to get called up.”
He only planned to stay for six years, until the sergeant major came up to him and asked him to stay one more year.
“It went on and on like that, just one more year,” said Don. “Until eventually I was halfway through my service and I thought, well heck, now I might as well stay.”
Throughout his service he won the Globe-Democrat newspaper award for being an outstanding soldier and he was an honor graduate at drill sergeant school. But he says his greatest prize is his wife and kids.
Don married his high school sweetheart, Diana, in November 1970, though she jokes that he only married her for her cooking skills.
“Oh, it’s too expensive to trade her off now,” said Don, with a laugh. “Heaven forbid, I’d have to train a new one now. I just about got this one right.”
The couple had two kids, Donna and Douglas, though Donna passed away 19 years ago.
On Donna’s 10th birthday, the family found out that her kidneys had never developed fully. So, she became the first patient to receive a kidney transplant from Cardinal Glennon Hospital Feb. 23, 1983.
“Of course Donny and I spoke up right off the bat to donate,” said Diana. “But, at the time, Donny was more capable of giving his, so he gave her his kidney.”
Donna’s surgery was to take place at Cardinal Glennon, but because Don was in the military, his surgery had to take place at the VA hospital.
“It was a huge ordeal,” said Diana. “Was I supposed to stay with Donna or go over and be with Don? Luckily, everything turned out fine and, boy, was it a huge relief.”
Don said that because Donna was the first patient to receive this transplant, she was spoiled rotten. She received a steak dinner from the nurses, a care package from the St. Louis Blues and the St. Louis Cardinals and was interviewed by Channel 5.
After a month the hospital released Donna to go home, but only after Diana learned how to conduct home dialysis.
“She was so great,” said Don. “She never, ever complained about anything. If you asked her how she was she’d always say, ‘I’m doing just fine, Dad.”
Right before 1995, Donna contracted a rare disease that affected her kidneys and they quit. So, they began looking for another kidney.
This time Diana was the one to give. The doctors took Don’s right kidney and Diana’s left so now when the couple stands shoulder to shoulder, their scars make a horseshoe shape.
Shortly after the second transplant Donna began working at Walmart while she studied at East Central College, but, she had to continue to get checkups every Tuesday.
“She would never miss work,” said Diana. “She would always show up an hour before her shift. Her ankles would be so swollen but she would still go, just happy to be there.”
In fact, it was when Donna didn’t show up to work that the couple knew something was wrong.
Diana passed away of congenital heart failure in March of 1998. She was 25 years old.
“She was just a peach,” said Don. “If she couldn’t make it to church on a Sunday because of work, she’d go on her only day off. She just loved life and people.”
The Brinkers donated a tree to Patients First Hospital in honor of Donna. It now resides in Cafe Mosaic and has grown immensely.
His Work in the Community
One of Don’s favorite things to do is ride his tractor around. That’s why when he heard about the KC Journey for Charity Tractor Cruise eight years ago, he jumped at the chance to participate.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “When all of us get together there’s so much camaraderie and it’s for a great cause.”
The cruise is 30 miles long and has over 125 participants on tractors to collect money and food to donate to the local food pantries.
Don is the president of St. John’s Helping Hands, an organization that raises food and funds for locals in need. He said the cruise seemed like a good way to help him do just that.
In the last cruise, they raised nearly $30,000 to be divided among the food pantries in Washington, Union and St. Clair.
“So many people participate,” he said. “There are some guys that are 70, 80 years old, and then there are some that are just learning to drive tractors.”
This year, Don plans to ride his recently purchased 1952 tractor, an exact replica of the one he had when we was a kid.
He says he loves being in the parades because all the people watching always wave and smile. He also loves to take pictures with kids.
“If you see a lot of guys in those tractor parades, none of them wave,” said Diana. “But then here comes Donny with a huge smile and waving to everyone. It’s just the best.”
Don also used to umpire Khoury League baseball games in Pacific, which he got into after not being able to say no again.
“Baseball is one of my passions too,” said Don. “It was a great time. I would always call them like I saw them, except some people didn’t like that too much.”
Diana and Don are both members of the Combined Christian Choir and even traveled with the group to Rome to sing.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Don. “It’s not work. You get to meet with people that you haven’t seen for years and we like to sing. I’m not the greatest singer in the world, but I really enjoy it.”
Don sings bass, and Diana sings alto. They say they really enjoy meeting people of all different ages and religions in the choir.
“Anybody that can sing, they’ll take,” said Don. “We don’t pick on people about their age, their color, their creed, their religion, or anything. The more the merrier.”
His Work in the Church
Don is a lifelong member of St. John’s-Gildehaus Church, spending nearly every Sunday of his 68 years in one of the pews.
Now, he serves the church in various ways because he says he “just can’t say no.”
Aside from providing food, St. John’s Helping Hands helps people pay for their electricity, gas and other household needs that they may not be able to afford.
“We are there to help them get back on their feet,” said Don. “If they don’t want to better themselves, then too bad and we have to stop helping them because the need is great in our area and we can’t keep helping people that won’t help themselves.”
Don was also the president of the home and school association, a member of the parish council and a member of the school board.
He calls bingo, is a member of the church choir and has worked every chicken dinner and sausage supper the church has hosted.
“People always say to me, ‘Donny, you’re back here again,’” said Don. “And my reply is always, ‘Well, once you get a job at St. John’s there’s only two ways to get rid of it. You either move out of the state or you die and they put you in that hill over there.’” Don is also a cantor, a lector, a member of the men’s club and the music director for the Corpus Christi celebration at the church. Diana says they also do a lot of odds and ends at the church, such as painting the inside of the school, when asked.
Don also routinely mows the entire church grounds, including the cemetery, which he says is a 16-hour job.
“Usually if someone needs help, Donny will give them the shirt off his back,” said Diana. “He just can’t help it. He can’t say no to a lot of things.”
Don has done many different jobs throughout his life, including work at AB Chance, Grimco Signs and Hazel.
“It was a challenge,” he said. “You have to learn to do so many different things and new stuff at each job. But, it was also great because now I have all this new knowledge.”
He retired from Enduro Binders in March after 15 years of service. It’s this retirement that has let him do something that he’s always been passionate about more often — mow the grass.
He has been running his own grass cutting business since he was 14 and has expanded by word of mouth since then.
Now, his calendar is chock full of grass-cutting appointments, and he loves it.
“I love mowing the grass because it’s so peaceful,” said Don. “You just get out there and ride. When it gets really hot, who’s going to come out there and bother you?”
He says the magic lengths of grass cutting is 3 ½ inches before June, 3 ¾ inches from June 1 to July 1 and 4 inches if there’s not a lot of rain.
However, he hasn’t always been an expert lawn mower. He says that during his first lawn-mowing job, he mowed down every flower that the customer had in their yard.
One of his longest-running jobs is at Pleasant Hills Cemetery, which he’s been mowing since 1963. In the 55 years he’s been cutting it, Don says he’s seen over half of the graves be installed.
He also loves to ride his tractor in many different parades. He recently rode in the Labadie Picnic Parade and won best in show.
But, Don and Diana say their favorite thing about retirement is getting to spend time spoiling their grandkids. All five of them come and spend a week alone at their house during the summer.
“That way each one of them gets all the attention,” said Diana. “Each one of them likes to do something different and we get to do that without making the other ones mad.”
Don says he loves that he gets to spoil the kids and then send them home to Mom and Dad after they wear him out.
The two are hoping to either take a trip to the Holy Land or take a train ride out West, once Don’s lawn-mowing business calms down from the summer.