It does not matter who you are, what you do, what race, religion or non-religion, political party, or if you are rich or poor, Don Allen will cheerfully help you, and share with you.
He’s known for sharing his home-grown fruits, vegetables, and a variety of plants. He plants the seeds, cultivates, waters, weeds, then picks and packs them, and he happily delivers them for others to enjoy. Allen, along with his wife Jan, does all the work, and then others get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. It’s the opposite of the “Little Red Hen” story.
Allen goes further. He also inspires others to cultivate their own gardens, the biblical sense of teaching a man to fish as opposed to just giving a man a fish. He plants and nurtures vegetables, for instance, and once the plants are a suitable replanting size he delivers them for others to plant in their own gardens. Allen teaches and helps to start other people’s gardens, and avails himself for questions and to be of help.
Nurturing the land is important to the Allens, say Mark and Barbara Schultz, Freeland residents familiar with Jan and Don Allen. You’ll know their property on Highway 525 in Greenbank by the hundreds of rhododendrons mixed in with gardens and fruit trees, from which they share their harvest.
“Don always makes a point to greet us with homemade cookies in hand, and a genuine concern in asking how we are doing,” the Schultzes said. “Don is a faithful servant to this community, and faithful friends. In one’s lifetime one very seldom meets such a caring sharing spirit like Don.”
Driving into the Allens’ property, you pass through their rhododendrons, fruit orchard and variety of berries. Bird feeders hang everywhere. There is a sprawling vegetable garden that they attend to for the sheer joy of sharing their harvest with others. There are so many birds flying about and eating their fill, that the Whidbey Audubon Society counts the birds at their home every January.
Don is pruning trees, and gets down from the ladder to come inside. In their kitchen, Jan is preparing and mixing all the bird feed. Everything is used — nothing wasted — at the Allen home; carrot tops are used for the neighbor’s animals, and surplus is composted.
Looking out any window from their older home, birds are feasting from everywhere in their property, or flying around enjoying life in the “Allen Sanctuary.”
Don laughingly says, “We waste hours every day watching the birds.”
Suddenly a deer that Allen says he sees every day appears and begins eating out of the bird feeders.
Asking Allen what he would do if he won a million dollars?
“I would buy property to preserve it for all to enjoy. We need more parks, beaches and natural preserves. Jan and I both believe it is very important to care for the land and our wildlife. We need to nurture it, not exploit our natural resource and delicate pristine areas.
“Any land we are stewards of is really just on loan for us to maintain it without screwing it up, so we hand it over non-developed to the next generation to nurture and enjoy the natural beauty and wild life.”
Allen says his dad taught him about caring for nature. “I was raised in a Christian home, I still have my first Sunday School Bible I was given in 1942. Dad and mom ran the Cottage Grove Resort in Greenbank, now referred to as Harbor Groves. My dad was really friendly. Everybody liked Dad, and he liked everybody.”
Jan chimes in as she goes out to fill the bird feeders, “Don’s dad was a great guy, and Don is a lot like his dad.”
Allen smiles. “I wish I could be.
“My parents liked Jan the first time I brought her home to meet them in 1953.”
Allen laughs thinking back how some of Jan’s tests to see if he measured up as an boyfriend, like going on strenuous hikes to see if he could handle them.
“Our relationship was interrupted with a letter. I will never forget when my mother, who never complained about anything, the day she opened up a draft board notice and burst out in tears,” he says. “It was my selective service, I felt so bad for my mother. I enlisted into the Coast Guard. The only way to avoid the draft was to enlist. I got out on June 22, 1956, and on June 23, 1956 Jan and I were married. Some said I was jumping from the fire into the frying pan. But I knew then and I know now Jan was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Jan says with her impish grin, “This relationship is fine with me. I never tried anybody else.”
Allen inspired the next generation. His niece from Greenbank Merri LeMay says, “I adore and think the world of my Uncle Don, who I call Hunter. He and Aunt Jan infused me with faith, the love and caring of nature, they’ve kept me honest, and are the unerring compass in a tumultuous and convoluted world. Hunter always goes up to a military man or woman he sees and thanks them for their service. They have inspired me in so many ways with their generosity, and helped me through the darkest years of my life. If I were shipwrecked on a desert island I would want Hunter with me, he and Jan would clean up on the TV series ‘Survivor.’ On any given day I ask myself, ‘What would Hunter do?’ ”
Allen volunteered for the Greenbank Fire Department for decades. A plaque with an axe with dozens of signatures on it is inscribed: “A quality guy giving quality service / Battalion Chief Don Allen. 1959-1997.”
“Back in those days we didn’t have the equipment there is today, we saved a lot of foundations back then,” Don says. “I remember about 1960 when we were called out to the Girls home, off Resort Road in Greenbank, when we got there our truck got stuck in the mud, and our hoses wouldn’t reach. We were able to make sure no one was hurt, but we couldn’t save the structure. That was difficult to watch.”
One of his most difficult times was in 1980 when his dad was killed by a drunk driver.
“To this day I have a hard time forgiving drunk drivers. There have been too many victims of drunk driving. I just do not understand why someone would get behind a wheel and not want to do their very best.”
Neighbors Annie and Ross Horton say they are the luckiest people in the world to have moved next to the Allens 23 years ago. The Hortons said Allen treats everyone like a neighbor, but they are fortunate to happen to live next door to his wife and him.
“Don is like no one else, solid as a rock, funny, generous and hardworking,” Annie Horton said. “He always answers the call to help. He has taken me to the hospital, pruned the tippy top of our trees, and built fences to keep predators away from our livestock. And when we go away he and Jan take care of our sheep, alpacas, chickens, ducks and geese, and that’s no easy task. There is a perfect symmetry between being available and respecting privacy. Don holds the secret of how to balance the important things in life.”
That generosity of time and service was a common theme for those who knew Don Allen. Betty Lehman, a longtime Freeland resident, echoed the Hortons in her sentiment of him.
“Don is the best friend anyone would ever want to have,” she said. “He’s shared so many fruits and vegetables with me throughout the years. He was always like a big brother to me, and I wouldn’t trade him for anything. He and his wife Jan will help anyone, does not matter who you are or what you do. Don thinks of everyone as their own family and one of ‘us.’ This is how we are meant to treat one another.”
PERSONAL SIDES FROM DON
Best advice you have ever been given?
My dad told me to “Stay out of trouble.”
Politicians you admire?
I vote for the person not for their party. I admire Norma Smith and Helen Price Johnson as they are true servants for citizens.
Adage you try to live by?
I can’t fully judge people as I have not walked in their moccasins.
What does it mean to have class?
Someone that isn’t boastful, cares about and helps other people, and doesn’t get their chain rattled easily.
What is something you are surprised about in your lifetime?
How complicated this world has become.
What is something most do not know about you?
I was born a preemie at 2 and ¾ pounds. I worked at Chips Boat Builders, where the Clinton Food Mart is now.
What would you change in yourself?
More patience. When I am fixing mechanics or working with technology I can fly off the handle.
Famous person you admire?
Bill Gates for his generosity and model for others that are wealthy.
Something you have always wanted to do but haven’t?
To sail on the German WWII war prize tall sailing ship the Eagle. The first Eagle was commissioned in 1792; this war prize was built by Germans in 1936. This may come from when I served in the Coast Guard Cutters which served as weather stations. The most interesting duty was on the icebreaker North Wind. I do not know at the time but we were exploring the Arctic in preparation for the first nuclear submarine to cross under the polar ice caps.
WHAT OTHERS SAY ABOUT DON ALLEN
“Don and Jan Allen were some of the first people I met at Trinity church, because they came up and welcomed us.
“When I was asked to be the chair of the personnel committee, I asked Don if he would be on the committee, and he said sure. He brought so much perspective since he had been at the church from the beginning. His historic knowledge was invaluable.
“He also had been in the fire department and he knew personnel issues. He was always a faithful member. He helped in writing a personnel handbook. He’s always been supportive in anything that is needed at the church or when he is asked to help. He worked hard on the wood ministry too. He would use his pickup to haul wood, deliver wood, split wood, stack wood, whatever was needed.
“We’ve known him also through the rhododendron society. He is generous with all for his knowledge and information with anyone. One day he showed up with two helpers and some huge rhododendrons he had brought us, and he had them put in our entry; what a gift that was. He digs up his best plants to donate to bazaars or fundraisers. That’s Don, and Jan’s right beside him.
“Don sets the tone of what a Christian should be. He never pushes himself on anyone; he just helps anywhere he can. He is the ‘cat’s meow,” always caring about others.”
— Craig Reid, Trinity Lutheran Church wood ministry volunteer and community volunteer
“Don Allen has lived his life in humble service to others. I have had the privilege of counting Don and Jan as my friends for the past 26 years. Don is soft spoken, faithful, dependable and gentle. He is a model citizen, neighbor and friend. He will take on any task looking to help, not looking for praise or credit. The world and the island would be a better place if we had a few more Don Allens around.”
— Pastor Jim Lindus Trinity Lutheran Church, Freeland
“Don is a neighborly man who views living as loving. First met in 1956 at the TLC ‘mission bud’ group. Plans always made for sharing not shoving. Come on over for lunch, we’ll make the soup. Some have a green thumb. Don’s got a green arm. His large vegetable garden responds to his charm. His beloved Jan accompanies the daily routine. Listening ears, warm hugs, kind thoughts, never mean. Once active in the firefighter brigade. When the alarm sounds, action for chaos he does trade. An island man of faith, Don knows how to stand firm, true. When looking for a solid servant, here is one of the few.”
— The Rev. Ronald Allen Melver, Greenbank
“I’ve known Hunter since before I was born. He and my older sister were best friends. We were neighbors in Yakima. We would climb the stile between our two properties and spend days together playing. I was the younger tagalong. Our family used to come and stay at his parents’ resort when they moved to South Whidbey and we would spend all day on the beach and made thorns, Hunter always got to be the king. We all had a magical childhood. It’s because of Hunter and Jan that my husband Martin and I moved to Whidbey. They both are always giving their time, talent, and gifts to lots for people in this community.”
Sara Benum, lifelong friend, Clinton
“I have known the Allens for a long while now and have really enjoyed every time I get to interact and see them. They have some of the best stories I know. They are an inspiration with all their hikes, travels and adventures. Every time my family and I return to the island we are excited that we get to visit with them. They show us so much kindness and go out of their way to ask how we are doing. They are one of my favorite couples.”
Vanessa Janssen, grew up on Whidbey Island
“Don Allen, the rhododendron king! Both a member of the American Rhododendron Society (Whidbey Chapter) and Meerkerk Rhodendron Garden, he knows rhodies like the back of his hand. He and Jan are at every event at Meerkerk from rhodie work parties to sale days to celebrations, Don digging up plants for fundraisers and Jan with her wonderful home-baked cookies. The Allens are truly two of the island’s treasures!”
Pat Sassoon, volunteer