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HOMETOWN HERO | Don Dils turns his focus outward with everyday kindness

This month’s Hometown Hero, Don Dils, has developed an island-wide reputation for helping people in their times of trouble. - Brian Kelly / The Record
This month’s Hometown Hero, Don Dils, has developed an island-wide reputation for helping people in their times of trouble.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

“I can still see him sitting on our couch even though it was over 30 years ago,” says Don Dils, this month’s Hometown Hero.

“He was in his 20s and came to our door selling greeting cards, his name was James. I invited him in, and he obliged, walking in with a staggering gate. As James sat down on our couch clutching his white cane, I noticed his arms had numerous wounds, probably from banging into things.

“But what really made an impression on me was his genuine kindness and huge friendly smile. He was grateful for every day, and for the opportunity to make a living selling these cards. His focus was outward on others, not inward.”

Dils said he later found out that James had been accidentally hit by a swing as a child which left him totally blind in both eyes, as well as affecting his equilibrium.

“James taught me by his example that surely I could handle any problems I have, and try to do it with grace as he had. When I get down, I picture his smile and kindness, and somehow my problems disappear.”

Trisha Bettencour, a Greenbank resident and past co-worker of Dils, says, “Don picked me up for work and took me back home and wouldn’t take any gas money or anything.”

“That’s just how he is. He’s the kind of guy that made work enjoyable, and was always the gentleman with co-workers and customers. Everyone liked Don. He always has an upbeat outlook on life no matter what.”

It didn’t matter what was happening in his life, Bettencour adds.

“When the front end of his car was badly smashed and not covered by insurance, he made light of it. When he suffered a really bad fall while trying to help someone and broke his hip, he never complained,” she recalls. “After that, he had to undergo major surgery, but still from his wheelchair would ask about me and my family. When I inquired how he was doing, he said, ‘Oh, I am getting along just fine.’”

Dils says there are horrific tragedies in the world, with much suffering and starvation.

“But most of life’s problems, mine anyway, I look at them as just part of the adventure. Sure there are a lot of ‘adventures’ we all would just as soon not have, but they are part of life, too.”

Dills recalls a particularly tragic period for him and his wife, Audrey, when their first baby passed away.

“I couldn’t call that an adventure, it was devastating for both Audrey and I. I must say, something very positive came out of that. It changed our lives. Our physician prayed for us and gave us a pocket-size New Testament, and this new faith got us through this loss,” he says.

Growing up in the “boonies” as he calls it, in Hogum Bay, he recalls being picked on at school.

“I was a weakling, with asthma, and no matter how hard I tried to overcome it, the ‘Charles Atlas program’ didn’t work for me,” he laughs.

“I never liked the teasing of course, but it did teach me compassion for others. I was the youngest of a sister and a brother. I had to divide my time playing football with my brother, and then playing dolls with my sister.”

Laughing, he says, “you know they were both pretty fun.”

John Warren, who worked at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, remembers Dils.

“When he came in with a broken hip in ER, instead of asking questions about his condition, he asked how I was. As we talked, I told him about some medical careers I was thinking of, and he encouraged me and even gave me an idea I hadn’t thought of,” Warren says. “Here is this man that had to be in a lot of pain, in the emergency room and asking how I am!”

Dils is a thin man, stands 6-foot-4, with a deep, comforting voice. He said he just had gotten over a touch of the flu, and wasn’t sure how to treat it.

He says with a straight face, “If I had swine flu I knew I needed oinkment, but what if it was bird flu? Then I needed tweetment.”

Dils is perennially positive. He says, “I really admire and am inspired by people that weren’t dealt all aces in life and yet have the courage to continue without complaint and do their very best.

“I don’t ever want to have a ‘Woe is me’ attitude. Oh, I start to get frustrated sometimes; take last week at the mall when I lost my balance and fell. I lay there mad at myself, and then I found the humor in the situation, and was grateful I wasn’t hurt.

“I learned long ago that life isn’t about me, and that sure is a relief,” he laughs.

“I find the best way to lead a fulfilling life is a faith in God, a sense of humor and to focus on others.”

Donald Hugh Dils

Born: Feb. 8. 1930 in Yakima.

Siblings: Two, both deceased.

Education: William Winlock Miller High School, Olympia; Centralia College (business major).

Work life: Joined the National Guard and Air Force Reserve; retired as a corporate training manager.

Family: Married Audrey on Aug. 7, 1953. Two children, Jeffrey and Jordana; three grandchildren, Audrey Rose, Mikah and Jacob.

Years on Whidbey? “Thirteen. Audrey and I have lived in three states and enjoyed them all, but coming to Whidbey Island feels like coming home. We love the island and the people here.”

South Whidbey people you admire?

“Oh, there are so many, however if I had to choose just eight: Don and Jan Allen, Gene and Audrey Anderson, Kay and Bill Anderson, Mark and Barb Schultz.”

A goal you want to accomplish?

“To spend more time seeking out people that are hurting or lonely, and find ways to help them find encouragement and strength.”

What are you most thankful for?

“Faith and my family. My wife and our wonderful adult children, their life partners and grandchildren.”

What is something most people do not know about you?

“I expect most don’t know I got my pilot’s wings at age 17 in a Taylor Craft Sea Plane. And I have been a part-time teacher teaching business classes to adults.”

What do you wish you could do over and better this time?

“To have a job where I did not travel, and would be able to be with my children more in their development years.”

Who would you like to apologize to?

“Friends that I think of often, but do not call them to tell them so. Sometimes I think I could be the president of the Procrastination Club.”

What bores you?

“People who buy the mantra, ‘Aww, ain’t it awful’ about their life, when they have their health and food on the table.”

Do you want power?

“The dictionary’s definition of power is ‘the ability to act or perform effectively.’ So do I want that? Yes!”

If you could ask God one question?

“Why have you been so patient and caring of me?”

What beliefs are most important to you?

“God so loved the world that he gave his only son to die for me, and you.”

What do you wish you have never found out?

“Any public slander about people.”

What motto to live by?

“Always be prompt no matter how long it takes.”

One of the hardest things you have had to do?

“Say good-bye to our first-born baby, and my brother and sister.”

How do you handle criticism?

“I liked my brother’s philosophy on this. When he was publicly praised for his quality of service, he thanked them for their kind words. But he also said he would prefer criticism. He said he cannot improve on a compliment, but with a complaint there is something to work on. When I receive a criticism, I have learned to say, ‘Thank you, that’s helpful.’ It’s up to me then to evaluate and decide if I want to change anything.”

What is your mission statement?

“To continue to study ways I can improve as a husband, father, grandfather, friend and servant to my community.”

What job couldn’t they pay you to do?

“Evict people from their homes.”

What is a good way to conduct ourselves?

“To live as though what we do is important to others, because it usually is. And pray daily for guidance.”

Quote you like?

“One machine can do the work of thousands of ordinary people, but no machine has yet been designed that will do the work of one extraordinary person.” Author unknown

What others say about Don Dils

“I first got to know Don through his friendship with my father and their ties with the Trinity Lutheran Church Thursday morning Bible- study group. Pop was home-bound for the most part, with the exception of the Bible study. He would share with me how pleased he was to get phone calls and visits from Don over the past year. In the last weeks and days of my father’s life, Don’s visits and calls became more frequent. He cared deeply for dad and was a source of comfort to our family. Now, each Sunday Don takes time to ask how we are doing. This caring spirit is so Don. I see in Don a man of faith with a great sense of community. I am honored to call Don my friend.”

Mark Schultz, Freeland volunteer

“I have known Don since the 1970s. He always makes me feel better for being around him because I am greeted with a warm smile, a supportive hug and encouraging words. Through the ups and downs of life he has been a quiet, solid presence. He doesn’t seem to enjoy drawing attention to himself and is genuinely happiest when he hears good news from or about you. I have always loved hearing that smooth, calming bass voice and a calming presence to those he touches along his way.”

Susan Shira, volunteer literacy specialist and South Whidbey resident

“An extremely intelligent, witty and kind man, who is always ready with a funny anecdote. He can apply an unbelievable sense of humor to all of life, both people and events. He sees possibilities in events and people. When we were leaving on a long trip, he asked if we needed help with our dog. When our church group returned from our trip, Don was there to meet us and give us and our neighbors a ride home.”

Kay Anderson, a Freeland gardening grandma

“Don is a truly nice person. I first met him walking on the golf course, a friendly hello, a wave, always with a smile to go along with it. Plus, he always took time to pet my dog, and that gets him a lot of points. When he suffered the severe hip injury, it didn’t affect his attitude. When the initial surgery was not successful, he could scoot around in his wheelchair using his good leg to propel him. And he could really scoot. All in all, Don is just a fun guy to be around, and I am honored to call him a friend.”

Robert “Mac” McCloskey, Freeland volunteer

“Don is part of our Lay Caring ministry team. He has been a friend to the lonely and shut-ins. Don is a man of faith who lives his faith with his life and with his love.”

Pastor Jim Lindus, Trinity Lutheran Church

“Don and his wife Audrey, are the kindest people. Don’s a giant teddy bear, he’s always happy to see me when he comes in the restaurant, and that makes for a great day for me. Just a lovely, lovely man. So, Don, a No. 6 breakfast and decaf coffee, I love ya.”

Rebecca Soapes, waitress at the Tyee in Coupeville

“Don and his wife Audrey are some of our absolutely favorite customers, just delightful people. Don comes in with a big smile. You know how sometimes when you see people you know you’re going to have a good day, well that’s how we feel when we see them come in. He is so easy-going and a pleasure to serve. They are so complimentary of the food and the service and are always appreciative."

Chelsea Randall, waitress at Greenbank Café

“Don is on TLC’s Care Team which meets monthly to monitor a ministry to the shut-ins, those who perhaps are recovering from illness, live alone, those who experience loss of a partner. Don is a kind, caring man whose soft voice and smile bring comfort. He himself has known surgeries and the pain and feelings that go with all that; he knows what long recovery time is like. He brings an empathetic ear and a wry sense of humor and friendliness that doesn’t overwhelm as much as it envelops you in warmth and gentleness.”

Dennis and Jerry Hanson, Dennis is a pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, Jerry is a volunteer

“Don has a very strong faith that has led him through life and helped him during his accident a few years ago. He is a strong man who is a role model to many.”

Linda Nevermann, Bell Choir director at the Lutheran church

“What a kind man he is. He’s always looking out for people at church to go over and say a kind word to them, and encourage anyone. He finds me, too, on Sundays to make sure I get his warm handshake and encouraging words. When I was in the hospital in Everett, he came over just to visit me. Now wasn’t that nice? He’s just one of the friendliest, nicest people. He always asks about you, he never talks about himself.”

Nora Josephson, Whidbey resident

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