I grew up in suburban Pittsburgh on a dead end street lined by trees. It ventured downhill steeply and then leveled off before ending at a cliff that again fell sharply and then terraced down to Little Pine Creek. I lived right there at the end of Braun Street. I lived there until I went away to college and then a few times more. My parents still live there. It is my home base.
In the middle of the street, on the same side, was a house just a little older than the others where Donny Dankmyer spent his entire life.
He was born there; he returned from Korea there; he spent the rest of his life there.
To some Donny Dankmyer was a war buddy, to some a family member, and to some he was the cantankerous old man in the RV who liked to walk the track behind the intermediate school.
To the kids on Braun Street he was Donny from up the street. The old man who sat on his porch, often with no shirt, and joked with us.
He was a great man.
He was simple. He was kind. He cared about his neighbors.
Donny Dankmyer died without fanfare.
Just as simple as his life was his end, a small ceremony on a Thursday in the Mt. Royal Mausoleum at 11 AM. No visitations.
He spent his life at the center of Braun Street, both physically and figuratively.
It was always his home base. It was the place he prayed to return to when he was half away around the world as teenager experiencing first hand the true horror of war.
He played many roles. Though he lived his whole life on one street he was a traveler who saw much of the U.S. He was a lifelong bachelor. In later years he was a reminder of a previous time.
He was the historian of Braun Street. He saw the whole thing happen. He knew exactly who was who, when was when, and what was what.
Most of all he was an individual.
We always got along.
In the elementary school years he would hide behind his screen door just visible enough to be slightly seen and use an old train whistle to startle me as I passed his house on my way home from the bus stop on Mt. Royal. I would look around and he would do it again, but louder, as if the train was coming at me.
Then he would laugh and open the door and come out onto the porch and ask me how my day went. We would talk for a minute or two and I would go home.
As I got older the train whistle stopped, all though in my college years he loved to remind me of it for a laugh.
When I would pass his house in middle and high school we would talk about the weather or the Steelers or what was going on in Shaler for a few moments.
It was always pleasant.
When I went to college I would always go out of my way to talk to him. Really, to visit him. Honestly, at points it was to check in on him.
I’d park my car and unload a month of laundry from my trunk and take them to the basement of my parent’s house. Then I would walk up Braun Street to say hi to Donny, and see what was new.
I always enjoyed our talks.
The tradition went on when I moved away after college, first to Colorado and eventually to Brooklyn. Seeing Donny on his porch when I came home became more and more important to me.
It was a signal to me that all though everything was changing rapidly there was still something constant.
No matter what was happening in my life I could rest assured that Donny was on his porch, likely with no shirt, looking out at the landscape he had seen since his birth silently pleased.
As time passed I came home less and less.
When I returned to get married I made sure to find time to tell him. As always he smiled and said “That’s great!”
He was always nice to me.
Perhaps because he just saw me as me. A kid and then guy who went out of his way to say hi and be nice to him.
While he had joked with the children of Braun Street for his entire life I was one in a handful that never got too old to talk to him. I think we both enjoyed our talks.
There is no doubt that I will always remember Donny Dankmyer. Just as there is no doubt that I will always view him as a great guy.
Donny Dankmyer lived in one house his entire life. He watched both a street and a community grow from a spattering of houses that had popped up on old farms to a suburb and then to an extension of metropolitan Pittsburgh.
He never appointed himself the Mayor of our street. He never tried to lead a resistance to the changes being made that erased his family’s history or sullied the landscape he had watched over for a lifetime. He instead decided to remain a constant.
Constantly an individual. Constantly present. Constantly pleasant to those who took a moment out of their day to say hello and shoot the breeze with Donny up the street.
His neighbors who always liked him and in the later years collectively checked in on him, making sure he was ok, will miss him.
Going back to Braun Street knowing that Donny won’t be on his porch waiting for a quick chat is disheartening. However, the memory of Donny will go on in the hearts and mind of every kid that ever grew up on Braun Street as the nice man who liked to say hi and would waive, or sometimes make train whistle sounds, as you passed.
For some of us he will be remembered as a man who had an effect on our lives, just by sitting there on his porch and being nice.
Just for being Donny from up the street.
May his spirit live on forever in the neighbors who knew him and may they make sure to smile and wave at the children of Braun Street, so they too can have a calming presence in an ever-changing world on some kid who may need it.