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Published in Alumni Publications on July 31, 2013
Dr. Robert Donald Jr. of Pascagoula helped found an organization that sponsors the Daily Bread soup kitchen, one of the many community projects that occupy the retired physician. The dining area features a mural of the Last Supper.
Dr. Robert Donald Jr. of Pascagoula helped found an organization that sponsors the Daily Bread soup kitchen, one of the many community projects that occupy the retired physician. The dining area features a mural of the Last Supper.

Compassionate Birthright: Dr. Robert Donald Jr. was destined to serve the forsaken

By Gary Pettus

It had been a typical day at Our Daily Bread, a Pascagoula soup kitchen, where the aroma of fried chicken had lured a homeless couple, Krizia Deal and Michael Pickett, from the woods.

Dr. Robert Donald Jr. and his wife Janet Donald end their day together on the tree-shaded deck of their home in Pascagoula.
Dr. Robert Donald Jr. and his wife Janet Donald end their day together on the tree-shaded deck of their home in Pascagoula.

It had been a typical day at Our Daily Bread, a Pascagoula soup kitchen, where the aroma of fried chicken had lured a homeless couple, Krizia Deal and Michael Pickett, from the woods.

Typical until the visitor arrived – a towering man in his 70s who took a seat beside Deal, a mural of the Last Supper looming behind them.

“Without this place, we wouldn’t have anywhere to eat,” Deal said to the visitor, who probably knew that already.

She was addressing Dr. Robert Donald Jr. of Pascagoula – the man who happened to drop by for a tour of the place he helped found; the only place Deal and Pickett ever get a hot meal; the only place for hundreds of people like them.

At Our Daily Bread in Pascagoula, Dr. Robert Donald Jr. shares a moment with homeless couple Krizia Deal and Michael Pickett, who depend on the services of the soup kitchen. “This is the only hot meal we get,” Deal said.
At Our Daily Bread in Pascagoula, Dr. Robert Donald Jr. shares a moment with homeless couple Krizia Deal and Michael Pickett, who depend on the services of the soup kitchen. “This is the only hot meal we get,” Deal said.

It’s just one sample of Donald’s “ministry to the poor and children,” as he calls it, a ministry that is central to his life and family history, a timeline notched by the figures of the down-and-out stretching back to the Great Depression and his grandfather’s door, where they could also get a bite to eat.

“I’ve always been proud of that,” said Donald, a graduate of the medical school class of 1962.

While his heritage made him proud, it took a couple of encounters a half a world away to make him act.

Those chance meetings were so haunting, that when he started acting, he didn’t stop – not after his retirement, not after a stroke.

A rolled-up inventory of his charity and relief work would be thick enough to stun a gar.

Over the years, he has been joined by many others in the cause, including Janet Donald, a former teacher and mental health counselor, and his wife of 51 years.

“You can’t say no to Bob and Janet, when they have given so selflessly to the community,” said Linda Holden, Moss Point’s former economic development director.

“The two of them, without missing a beat, without drawing a breath of tiredness, just keep marching on.”

From food pantries to a free medical clinic to the scars from the wounds he helped heal during his 40 or so years in family practice, Donald’s handiwork extends not only from Pascagoula to Ocean Springs but also into Central America.

“Whatever it is, if you say ‘Dr. Donald’ with it, you know it’s going to be good,” said Shirley Mullins of Vancleave.

“As his patient, I wasn’t just a number to him.

Dr. Robert Donald Jr. visits the Rev. Sheila Jenkins at the Volunteers in Medicine Gautier Medical Clinic, a local mission of the Abundant Life Church in Gautier. Donald serves on the clinic’s board of directors and is one of the medical directors.
Dr. Robert Donald Jr. visits the Rev. Sheila Jenkins at the Volunteers in Medicine Gautier Medical Clinic, a local mission of the Abundant Life Church in Gautier. Donald serves on the clinic’s board of directors and is one of the medical directors.

“When I was pregnant – this was years before ultrasound – he found my baby’s heartbeat with a stethoscope and marked it with an ‘x’ on my stomach. He said, ‘Now you can go home and show your husband.’

“That’s the kind of personal, hands-on doctor he was.

“He was my physician, but I count him as my good friend, too. I almost cried when he said he was retiring.”

Donald, who turned 77 on June 15, is retired, but still moving, making the rounds across Jackson County, where his face is as familiar to residents as the salty air and the shrimp po-boys at Bozo’s.

Not bad for someone from Lauderdale County, some 150 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico.

Donald’s everlasting love of the outdoors was born in Meridian, where he also came into the world.

It was there that his mother, Mary Neville Donald, suddenly found herself bringing up three children on her own. Donald Sr., a World War II Army physician, had suffered a fatal heart attack in the service when Donald Jr. was 14.

Before earning his M.D. at Jefferson Medical College, Donald’s father had attended the Ole Miss medical school, which was then a two-year institution in Oxford.

A new, four-year school would be up and running in Jackson before Donald Jr. turned 20. But discovering your calling and being able to afford it are two different things.

He pondered, instead, finding a job in the woods.

Mary Meldren, director of Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, gives Dr. Robert Donald Jr. a tour of the pantry.
Mary Meldren, director of Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, gives Dr. Robert Donald Jr. a tour of the pantry.

“Sewanee had a great forestry program, and I considered that for a career,” he said, referring to the University of the South, his undergraduate alma mater.

“But I realized I wanted to work with people.”

Working with people, though, requires a strong stomach; the first time Donald drew blood in medical school, he passed out.

“I was on the floor,” he said.

He got over his squeamishness, as well as his financial hump. Physicians lined up to loan him money for his schooling at UMMC; the U.S. Air Force, which he had joined, contributed to his senior year’s costs.

Among the physicians who helped was his older cousin and mentor, the late Dr. Emile Baumhower Jr.

After establishing his family practice in Pascagoula, Baumhower was the draw that eventually led Donald to the Coast.

“He was one of the great guys in this world,” Donald said. “He was my big brother.”

Together, they would launch reputations that inspired a ’Goula girl and future physician.

“If you were their patient, they made you believe you were the most important thing to them at that moment,” said Dr. Teresa Williamson of Pascagoula, who was about one second old the first time she saw Baumhower, the doctor who delivered her.

“That was the kind of doctor I wanted to be.”

As a teen, Williamson went on a trip with a youth group from St. John’s Episcopal Church, which dispatched Donald as a chaperone, fortunately.
“On the way there, my brother cut his head while horsing around,” Williamson said.

“There, on the side of the road between Pascagoula and Orlando, Dr. Donald pulled out his black bag and stitched him up in the Winnebago. I got to assist him.

“Then we got back on the road went to Disney World.”

Her dream at that time was to practice with Baumhower and Donald, she said. “They said they would wait for me.”

When Williamson graduated from medical school, her parents gave her a black bag; its contents were all Dr. Donald-approved.

In 1996, she joined him and Baumhower. Today, she practices with Dr. Robert Donald III, one of Donald Jr.’s three sons. “We call him ‘Little Bob’,” Williamson said. “Bless his heart.”

As for “Daddy Donald,” she said, “to have worked with him, life couldn’t have been better.

“He misses being a doctor, but he’s still doing what he loves, which is helping people.”

He came by this love honestly.

Years ago, in Meridian, his uncle fired up his own soup kitchen, Donald said.

In the 1930s, following the country’s economic collapse, his mom’s dad fed people for free.

“That has always been part of my family’s story,” Donald said.

In the 1970s, he found his own stories. That was during his military service in Pakistan, where he served as commander of a military base dispensary.

Touring the mountainous area around the Khyber Pass one day, he saw a man in a sheet wandering around the perimeter of an isolated village.

When Donald finally stopped him, the man pulled back the sheet to reveal a primitive colostomy bag. He was lost and apparently searching for a hospital.

Donald also remembers peering into the pale, anemic face of a young girl. “I gave her some iron and vitamins,” he said.

“There wasn’t much else I could do. I don’t know what happened to her; I never saw her again.”

Those images followed him back to Pascagoula, where he and Janet have made their home for the past 35 years.

“What I saw in Pakistan made me realize I was living in a world of plenty,” he said.

Within a year or so of his return to the states, and at the urging of a missionary, Donald was on his way to Guatemala on a medical mission.

“I saw buildings with their fronts blown off,” he said. “Little kids were running around pointing guns.”

Revolution was wrecking the country, as it was in Honduras, where Donald also traveled as part of a contingent bearing soap, toothbrushes, equipment to create a safe water supply and more.

“On that first trip, we brought a veterinarian, who also served as a dentist because he knew how to numb a tooth,” Donald said.

“There was this one woman he kept trying to calm down by telling her she was going to be alright. But his Spanish was so bad that he was really saying, ‘You’re going to die.’

“So that was interesting.”

The mission to Honduras endures, led by the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. But soon after it began, Baumhower delivered a strongly-worded suggestion that Donald took to heart.

“He said there’s stuff that needs to be done right here. So we started Our Daily Bread.”

The soup kitchen/food bank, an operation now engaging a dozen area churches, delivers food in Jackson County to 550 people each day, five days a week, said Mary Meldren, the director.

Located on Old Mobile Avenue, it feeds a hot lunch to about 100 people daily.

Some four or five miles westward, patients without health insurance turn to the Volunteers in Medicine Gautier Medical Clinic; Donald is on the board of directors and was instrumental in finding physicians to staff it.

“Dr. Donald helps everyone in this community,” said the Rev. Sheila Jenkins, pastor of Abundant Life Church, which sponsors the clinic.

“He always finds a way to meet the needs of the underdog.”

The have-nots include schoolchildren whose families take home about eight pounds of free groceries on Thursdays, referred there by local school districts.

The program is called Backpack Buddies, and Donald got it going in Jackson County.

“The first family we fed was four children and their mother,” he said. “They were living in a car with no back windows.”

Troubled families also turn to the Bacot Home for Youth in Pascagoula. Janet is a volunteer there, and her husband built much of the playground equipment.

Donald was also drawn to many of the community projects boosted by his good friend and renowned civic leader, the late Jolly McCarty.

“Dr. Donald has set the bar impossibly high for the rest of us,” Holden said. “Some of us don’t know if we will reach even the lower level of that bar.”

In the 1980s, the City of Pascagoula received national acclaim for the innovative design and teaching element that distinguish I.G. Levy Park, which Donald helped create.

He and Holden were among a variety of far-flung honorees at an awards ceremony hosted by President Ronald Reagan at the White House.

In 2008, his own state came through, toasting Donald with the Lifetime Achievement in Volunteer Service Award from the Governor’s Initiative for Volunteer Excellence (GIVE).

About two years later, he endured a stroke, and subsequent bypass surgery. They didn’t shut him down for long.

He still roams around the county he has left such a mark on; his face recognized almost everywhere he goes – at coastal strongholds from Jerry Lee’s Grocery to the Singing River Healthplex.

At the end of a long day of being back-slapped and hand-shook, he unwinds on his deck behind his home on Harbor Lane, shaded by a centuries-old oak tree in a bird-watchers’ paradise of pelicans, gulls, ospreys and herons.

Overlooking the untroubled waters of Lake Yazoo, it is the perfect place for literal and mental reflection.

His most satisfying accomplishment? “Church work,” he said.

The GIVE Award? “I was honored.”

It would be easier to pull a tooth out of a frog than to pull a boast out of Donald.

Leave it to Mullins, his friend and former patient, to give him his due: “He has been a part of anything good that has happened in Jackson County.”

COMMUNITY SERVICE and HONORS

Lifetime Achievement in Volunteer Service, 2008 Governor’s Initiative for Volunteer Excellence (GIVE)
2009 Outstanding Service Award, Jackson County United Way
Mississippi State Medical Association Community Service Award, 1986
Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi, Honduras Medical Mission, five times
Remote Area Volunteer, Medical Corps mission to Southwest Virginia/Kentucky, 2003
Founding president, Our Daily Bread, 1981
Chair, Bacot Home for Youth
Board of directors, Jackson County Civic Action Committee
Board of directors, United Way of Jackson County
Board of directors and medical advisory board chair, Volunteers in Medicine Gautier
Advisory Board, Salvation Army, Jackson County
2000 Pascagoula Rotary Outstanding Citizen, Jackson County
Rotary International “Paul Harris Fellow,” twice