Oh, Donna, you made us better

When I moved to Kauai four years ago, one of the first people I interviewed via phone was Donna Schulze. I was given her name and number as a source for a story I was working on.

While I had a bit of a tough time understanding exactly what she was saying, as she spoke quickly with a dialect, I understood this in that one call: Donna Schulze was a woman of great energy, enthusiasm and openness. She chatted with me like we were old friends, not a stranger from the Mainland who just rang her.

That would be a start of a friendship. I visited her Kilauea home several times, once for a long interview for a feature story, when she proudly showed me her pictures, articles, letters, certificates, race numbers and awards. They were decades of recognition for her achievements, a lifetime of stories and photographs of which she loved to talk about.

When my sons visited, I made sure to stop by Donna’s home and introduce them. There were a few times my wife and I got the chance to sit in the back yard with Donna and her beloved Chihuahua, Patches, and talk about the latest happenings and our fitness, one of her favorite topics.

At her 90th birthday party in May 2014, a large affair at what was then North Shore Christian Church, I listened to one person after another talk about how Donna impacted their life. That night, she seemed humbled by all the attention. Her smile was warm and genuine. She danced with grace and beamed with pride when Derek Kawakami presented her with a framed proclamation from the Legislature in honor of her birthday and her contributions to her community. He said she embodied the spirit of aloha.

Indeed, she did.

She will be missed by many.

Donna passed away peacefully Wednesday at Wilcox Hospital, where she was taken after falling in her home. Her strength and spirit finally surrendered after 92 years on this Earth.

Word of her death spread quickly around the North Shore.

“Donna was always for what was right,” said Tom Tannery, YMCA director, a friend of Donna’s for more than three decades who followed in her footsteps at the Y. “She was always trying to help people.”

Donna, he said, was always upbeat. She endured difficult times with a steady hand, pushing ahead and looking for the good in this world and in the people around her.

She was a person of strong values who broke barriers with her determination. Tannery said he was privileged to know and work with Donna.

“She was an inspiration to me,” he said.

Tannery said he went surfing Friday morning and was thinking about Donna.

“I caught some wonderful waves out there for her,” he said. “I said good-bye.”

Lynn Thompson, who met Schulze in 2015 and lived with her for a few months, said she was an amazing woman who was determined, stubborn, resilient and optimistic.

“She was really on a mission to inspire people and encourage them. She was a mentor to so many people,” Thompson said.

Schulze was known as the “Lavender Lady of Kilauea.” The longtime runner and fitness fanatic was a go-to person for many who needed motivation. She was a firm believer in exercise, diet and positive thoughts.

A devout Christian and woman of great faith, she lived what she called a blessed life.

Donna finished more than 200 races, including several marathons and half-marathons. She was a fixture for decades in the Haena to Hanalei 8-miler. She founded and organized a keiki race for years. She coached many, taught scores to swim, encouraged more to run. She played senior basketball in her later years. She believed in the impossible and wanted others to believe it, too.

Her awards included:

w Kauai’s outstanding senior woman for 1997

w Aloha Spirit, 1995

w Volunteer of the Year, Kauai YMCA, 1984

w Family court volunteer

w #1 Wahine Runner Award

w Presidential sports award, from President Jimmy Carter, June 1978 for “Jogging.”

The woman known to some as “Coach Grandma” had a rock with these words etched on it: “Winners never quit. Quitters never win.”

She lived by that motto.

Donna was in her 40s when she earned her physical education degree from Oregon State University.

Her husband George stood 6 feet, 7 inches. He was a bus driver for 20 years, a lifetime runner, and a “wonderful ballroom dancer.” His nickname was “Greenbeans.”

The couple bought their Kilauea home in 1972 for $44,000. For five years, Donna worked as a YMCA director. All her money went into the bank to pay off their home.

George, her husband of 36 years, died New Year’s Eve, 2007. Their children’s names reflected their outlook on life: Melody, Happy, Jolly, Gay and Honey.

Rosalie Gordon, a friend of Donna’s, said she was strong with a kind heart. Her Thanksgiving gatherings of family, friends and even strangers were legendary.

“Everything that God gave her, she shared,” Gordon said. “She never kept anything for herself.”

She admired Donna for her tenacity.

“She just didn’t give up. She gave everything her best,” Gordon said.

Kawakami said when he passed by Donna’s lavender home, he thought of her smile and the twinkle in her eyes.

Donna taught his daughter, Hayley, to overcome her fear of the water and learn to swim.

“To this day, we are grateful to Auntie Donna,” he said. “They don’t make people like her anymore.”

Kawakami recalled that in 2013, Donna was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition. She never flinched and defied the odds by living several more years.

“I remember her not being afraid of death,” he said.

Craig Rogers was one of Donna’s closest friends. He carried out home repairs, brought her lunch, delivered communion after church when she was too weak to attend, played the ukulele for her and danced with her, too.

She was a strong Christian, he said, and there were certain things about which “it was Donna’s way or the highway.”

But she was also very open-minded.

“It didn’t really matter what religion you were,” he said. “She welcomed everyone.”

Donna, he said, lived a simple life and was generous to all. She was so trusting, she never locked the doors to her home.

“If they want something from me that they need, I’ll help them carry it out,” Donna often said.

Rogers laughed when he recounted her devotion to Patches. He said he would bring Donna a sandwich, and she would take the best meat out and give it to her Patches, who was always by her side.

“She made sure her dog was OK,” he said. “She put others ahead of herself.”

During an interview with TGI, Donna said she believed her duty was to motivate people — to encourage, to help them become their best, to believe in themselves, to live with happiness and to know joy.

She didn’t just say those words.

“What I do, I do by example,” she said.

That she did. Very well.

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