Donald Grant – A Memoir


Donald Grant

A Memoir

I have been visiting San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast of California for many years. It was an easy “escape” place for me to fly to. The weather is perfect, the ocean is very near and the restaurants and shops are wonderful. In 2009 (when the housing market crashed) Jamie and I bought a townhouse there and visit as often as we can.

On one of my trips I went to the Granada (an upscale eating place) in downtown SLO for a glass of wine. Sitting next to me at the bar was a man who, over the years, became a dear friend. His name was Don Grant and he was a retired Architecture Professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. We hit it off immediately. He had a VERY interesting life. Born in extreme poverty in dust bowl Oklahoma in the 1930’s he raised himself to get a Ph.D in Architecture from UC Berkeley and had a long career as a Cal Poly professor. Along the way he wrote many books, pamphlets and articles on Architecture, edited a prestigious journal, designed and built many structures (including his own home) and traveled extensively in Europe. He enjoyed and was knowledgeable about classical music, history, philosophy and was a “down to earth” intellectual.

Don was kind of a curmudgeon (in the good sense) and had strong political leanings. While I consider myself a moderate liberal, in his earlier years he had been a member and advocate of the Socialist Party (which had a large following in America until Joe McCarthy). His ideal America would have been like the Scandinavian Social Democracies. He believed in social justice for all. Apparently he had been quite a political activist as a young man—which put him at odds with the mainstream and spoke his mind. He was a convinced atheist and influenced my leanings that way. Like me he had no illusions of an afterlife.

Nearly every time I was in SLO we met at Granada over wine and beer and discussed everything—and he seemed to know everything. We covered a lot of bases–especially history, philosophy, religion, politics, music, art and architecture—all of great interest to me. He was a kind of Renaissance man. I really found a dear friend and a kind of mentor. We agreed on many things and he enjoyed my recordings, my experiences as musician, teacher and thinker. Don was a few years older than me. We became good “buddies”.

Last November Don sent me a troubling note. He went to his doctor for some jaundice issue and left with a death sentence. He had cancer in four places: colon, liver, pancreas, and lung and was given less than six months to live. With his usual stoicism he decided to not have chemo, radiation or other extraordinary procedures. He wanted to keep his dignity, wits and optimism to the end and hope the decline would not be too painful. It hit me hard. I visited Don in early December and we shared a couple of meals. He was living at home but had hospice care. He was still upbeat, not afraid of death and proud of his life and achievements. I told him I would visit again after my Christmas trip to Cuba. When I went to SLO in early January I discovered that Don had died shortly after our meeting—less than a month after the diagnosis.

I am very sad to have lost this erudite and dear friend but learned a good lesson in how to die with dignity. He is a bright memory for me and I feel very fortunate to have had Don Grant in my life.

Jim Self


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