- Jason Vondersmith
- Portland Tribune - Features
KOIN's Mike Donahue retires after 44 years, and he couldn't be happier
Day after day, night after night for 40 years and then some, Mike Donahue has been there.
Steady, respected, trustworthy, the man with the stoic, strong and straight-forward approach to reporting and anchoring became the paragon of Portland television news.
Yet, even today, as the 66-year-old Donahue prepares to sign off, retiring from his five-decade career at KOIN (6), he admits to always worrying about his job. You see, television news can be fickle, with oft-changing owners and executives making decisions based on ratings, advertising dollars, appeal and vanity. So, part of his happiness upon entering the golden years springs from simply having worked an entire career with one station.
"I've never lost this fear that they would fire me and I'd walk out the door," Donahue says.
But, the man who grew up in Albany, learned work ethic from his father, found instant reward through journalism, served in the U.S. Army at the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, anchored news for nearly 40 years and still wonders where the heck D.B. Cooper went, receives the honor of exiting graciously on his terms June 1. Retirement beckons, which means time to visit friends in Washington, D.C., tend to his rose garden, relax, maybe coach Little League and work for a nonprofit, possibly visit Paris, spend time with his wife and two daughters and address medical issues -- including a hole in his retina and a long-standing battle with prostate cancer.
Forty years at KOIN -- not counting the one year he spent there as an intern in 1968. It's believed to be the longest tenure in Portland TV news, ever.
"It'll never happen again," says fellow KOIN anchor Jeff Gianola, adding that Donahue inspired all around him with his sense of story and wonderment.
One man, one station -- a match made on the airwaves.
"KOIN knew the quality of Mike -- thank God," videographer Lory "Ole" Olson says.
Dean Barron, another KOIN videographer, started at the CBS affiliate in 1972, the same year Donahue returned from military service.
"He's the gold standard," Barron says.
The folks at KOIN wouldn't let Donahue leave without fanfare. Starting May 18 with his remembrance of the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption, Donahue had stories planned for the 6 p.m. news on his most outstanding memories, including the 1986 Mount Hood climbing tragedy involving Oregon Episcopal School students, the Rajneeshpuram cult of the 1980s, the mystery surrounding the infamous robber Cooper, overseas journeys, the environment and lighter moments as when he tried to get his 1957 Chevy through DEQ.
On May 30, Donahue reflects on his career with a personal essay, followed May 31 with a special report from Gianola about Donahue's formative years in Albany and a tribute from colleagues.
Donahue figured he could have worked longer, but with retirement benefits awaiting, the time felt right to put down the microphone, walk away from the camera and lights and smell the roses.
To write and report gave Donahue much satisfaction through the years. But, he won't miss the reporting part of his profession -- "it's a young person's job" -- and he won't miss being on television. Been there, done that. And, he has enjoyed plenty the thrill of being Mike Donahue, recognized TV newsman.
"It's appealing to live in private," he says.
Being comfortable with his departure makes sense, given Donahue's upbringing in Albany, which he revisited with Gianola and Olson recently. The son of parents who owned a Studebaker dealership, Donahue attended a one-room schoolhouse in the country, and lived as a youth on a 100-acre farm. He remembers wanting to be an athlete, but being cut from the baseball team during his sophomore year in high school sent him in another direction.
A shy kid, Donahue became active in student government at Albany Union High School. The seeds of his long media career were planted in speech class and working for the school yearbook and newspaper.
"That was my future," Donahue remembers thinking. "It was something that I could do, I had the talent and I got the reward."
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, Donahue exited the classroom and retrieved his transistor radio and then returned to report the details to classmates. Upon reflection, Donahue says, it was his first big news story.
All the while, Donahue learned work ethic from his father. At a down moment, his father would tell him, pick up a broom and sweep the floor. As a teenager, he worked -- at his father's dealership as a janitor and parts man, on a furniture delivery crew, with a dairy truck painter, as a grocery store box boy.
It's a work ethic that Donahue held with pride.
He attended the University of Oregon for its journalism program, eschewing Oregon State University, where most Albany kids attended. At the U of O, he refined an ability to write and tell stories, eventually landing an internship at KOIN in 1968 -- interestingly, maybe the most pivotal year in U.S. history with such discontent and change and tragedy happening across the domestic and international landscape. But the military came calling, or it would have, had Donahue not joined an Army officer cadet program.
He worked for Uncle Sam in public information, reaching lieutenant and then captain status, at the Pentagon. He rubbed elbows with the prestigious officers of the day, including Gen. William Westmoreland, and became privy to top-secret information during the Vietnam War. When the first photos of the My Lai massacre arrived at the Pentagon, Donahue saw them before many others.
Donahue served in the military with honor. He met his future wife, Susan, in Washington, D.C. But, during his four-year service, he thought about his television career.
"I dreamed about coming back the whole time," he says.
A trusted voice
Gianola remembers a former KOIN news director telling him, "If I can have Mike Donahue on the top, as my lead story, I know I'll win the newscast."
A lot of reporters complicate stories, Gianola adds. Not Donahue.
"Such an incredible storyteller," he says. "Less words, more story."
Adds Olson: "He writes to video probably better than any reporter I've ever worked with. He pays so close attention to detail. He likes to take the historical approach on stories. ... Not all anchors are good reporters; a lot of people are hired on appearance. He has that clean-cut All-American boy look, but besides the good looks, he was a good writer and reporter."
Donahue added anchor to his duties in 1974, and he has led news programs ever since -- mornings, noon, 5 p.m., 11 p.m. He had a 13-year run alongside Shirley Hancock, and also with Gianola beginning in 1998 as a "power matchup," Donahue says.
In a world of mayhem that news can be, Donahue always had a sense of calm.
"I've never seen him lose his temper," Barron says.
"Mike's personality -- he's mild-mannered," Olson says. "He is busy, never wastes time. And, he is focused. He's not a guy who will pour a cup of coffee and shoot the breeze with the guys."
His work at KOIN also took him around the world, to places such as Egypt and Russia, when budgets among media companies allowed such things.
Mostly, Donahue enjoyed covering stories in his home state. He reveled in covering politicians such as former Gov. Tom McCall. He remembers, amusingly, climbing into a bucket truck to interview protester Tre Arrow, who had positioned himself in a tree. He covered the crash of a United Airlines plane in east Multnomah County. When Mount St. Helens erupted, Donahue anchored KOIN's reporting, as the station pre-empted "Archie Bunker's Place." He went to jail, literally, as part of a story about Inverness Jail, and then asked to be let out when he felt inmates had sniffed him out.
And, of course, he remembers the various ill-fated reports on the notorious Cooper, many debunked.
"I think I know where he is," Donahue says now. "He's dead."
All the while, Donahue can't help but think back to his beginnings, when the great Walter Cronkite and others inspired him. He interviewed Cronkite three times, and he learned from the best.
"Be straightforward and treat the news respectfully," Donahue says. "That was Walter."
He adds: "I'm not good at banter. I don't do a lot of comedy, and I'm not good at commentary. I'd rather the banter be about the news, sports and weather. It gives you credibility, which is the best thing you can have as an anchor."
Stamina, steady, loyal
Donahue lives in Southwest Portland and attends Sunset Presbyterian church. "God is a huge part of my life," he says. "I couldn't handle the pressure or stress without being able to talk with him. They've even let me preach a couple of times."
He enjoys tending to his rose garden, and he gives roses away as presents; interestingly, at the "Hilltop House" where he grew up outside Albany, the Donahue family had rose bushes, and young Mike and his brothers learned the skill of tending the precious flower.
"A lot of people think it's hard," he says. "But, if you take care of them ..."
He's an unofficial historian of the Rose Festival, Portland's pre-eminent annual event. He loves Portland, where he has seen much structural, political and cultural change.
"It still has a town feeling to it," he says.
And, he has always been a New York Yankees fan. He remembers being 8 years old and watching the likes of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra. In recent years, he had the opportunity to interview Yankees star Derek Jeter, a big thrill.
He reveres Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera, for some obvious reasons:
"His stamina -- he keeps going and going. ... He's made it with a variation on one pitch (the cut fastball). ... He's stayed with one team. ... And, it's exciting to see someone maximize their gift."
Sounds a lot like somebody else Mike Donahue understands and people around him appreciate ... himself.