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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Love story: Building family from scratch: Couple met as children in orphanage, married at 18 and have seen world together

By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

Dona and John Clay’s early experience of family was less than heartwarming.

That’s one of the reasons the couple forged their own family with bonds that have endured 65 years and counting.

They met at the Home for Orphans of Odd Fellows, in Philadelphia.

“My mother died when I was 3,” Dona said. “My dad put my sister and me in the orphanage when I was 8½. We never knew why he put us there.”

In retrospect she surmises it happened because her stepmother became pregnant and was placed on bed rest.

“We were told it would just be for the summer,” she said.

But though her father paid monthly visits, he never took his daughters back home.

A couple years later, John arrived, at age 10. It was 1947, and he and his younger sister had been declared wards of the state.

“My dad took off, and my mom, well, she was neglectful,” he recalled.

Neglectful to the point Dona remembers him telling her about the time his mother was gone for three days, and all he and his sister had to eat was a coconut cake.

Even so, he didn’t adapt to orphanage life well.

“He ran away the first day, and his mother brought him back,” Dona said.

Boys and girls were housed separately, but saw each other at meal times and on Sundays. Dating was forbidden, so Dona and John got to know each other when they started meeting at the water fountain in the main dining room.

Actually, it was Dona’s sister who’d caught his eye.

“I wanted to take her sister out, but she wouldn’t go unless I took Dona,” John said. “Then my sister wanted to go. I ended up taking all three of them to a movie.”

His dad was occasionally in touch, but rarely on visiting day. And his mom?

“You never knew when or if she’d show up,” he said. “I’d sit looking out the window.”

Children were allowed to leave the orphanage when they graduated from high school or enlisted in the military.

Dona, seven months John’s senior, graduated at 17, and went to live with her grandmother. John didn’t enjoy school and enlisted in the Navy.

“I went back the next month to visit my sister and John, and he was gone,” Dona recalled. “But I was close to his sister and knew where his mom lived.”

She found out he’d enlisted in the Navy on Aug. 4, 1954.

Even though they’d never actually dated, they just assumed they’d marry.

“I bought her an engagement ring at the BX (Base Exchange) when I got out of boot camp,” John said.

Plans for a summer wedding were interrupted when the Navy sent him to a school. Then Dona got a call.

“I have a week’s leave; do you want to get married?” John asked.

They were both just 18 and each had to have a parent sign for them. With a three-day waiting period for blood tests and a license, they ended up with one day to get married, and one day for a honeymoon. They married on Oct. 3, 1955.

“We had $5 in the bank,” Dona said. “The little Baptist church we’d attended gave us everything for the wedding, and his dad paid for a night in a nice hotel in downtown Philly.”

They spent their honeymoon day as tourists, visiting sites like the Liberty Bell, which Dona had never seen. Then John shipped out, and Dona moved in with his mom and sister.

Their daughter, Beth, arrived in 1957, and the following year John left the Navy and enrolled in engineering school in Chicago.

“We were starving,” he recalled. “Dona had to get a job at a bank.”

A neighbor girl watched Beth until John got home from school. They had no car, so Dona rode the elevated trains to work and back. The situation was untenable, so John looked to the military once more – this time the Air Force.

“I enlisted as an E-4 in 1958, and they immediately promoted me to E-5,” he said. “I thought this might be a good outfit. Then they sent me to Korea for 13 months.”

He had to leave his wife and daughter behind.

When he returned, the Air Force told him he could pick his next assignment, so he chose Madrid, Spain. That’s where their son, John, completed their family in 1962.

Then he was once again sent to Korea, without his family. Several moves, including a stint in Japan occurred before they were separated again. In 1970, John was sent to Vietnam for a year.

“We kept in touch by mailing cassette tapes back and forth to each other,” Dona said.

John left the Air Force in 1975, only to be hired by the civil service to do the same job. For almost 22 years, he and Dona traveled the globe from the Philippines, to Panama, to Germany. A stint at Fairchild Air Force Base brought them to the Northwest, and they settled Spokane in 1989.

He retired from the civil service in 1997, but continued teaching electronics off and on at North Idaho College until 2015. The kid, who’d dropped out of high school, had earned a degree in public administration during his time in the Air Force.

Dona had learned to play piano in the orphanage and has played for Nine Mile Community Church for many years, often teaching piano to kids from church in their home.

The couple have always been active. John ran and swam competitively while in the Air Force, garnering numerous awards. He ran the Boston Marathon twice in his 40s, competed in triathlons and embraced long-distance running, completing several 50-mile races.

Now, Dona, 84, and John, 83, take walks every day, and are preparing for yet another move – this time to Georgia to be near their daughter.

As Dona reflected on their 65 years of marriage, she said the military life caused them to be flexible, and growing up in an orphanage caused them to be grateful.

“It was hard being apart when he was overseas,” she said. “But you do what you have to do, and we were so happy to be together again when he returned.”

John nodded.

“I appreciate her wisdom, and her love for me,” he said.

In their West Plains living room, surrounded by photos of their younger selves, Dona smiled.

“We grew up together, and we grew old together.”


Cindy Hval can be reached at