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Oakdale Loses Pioneer Donnelly

POSTED April 21, 2010 1:45 a.m.

Longtime Oakdale resident Dan Donnelly died Saturday, April 17 at his Oakdale home. He was 94.

He was born in Oakland and moved to Oakdale with his family as a small boy. He graduated from Oakdale High School in 1933. He attended St. Mary’s College in the Bay Area.

According to his son Corky, Mr. Donnelly and his own father made whiskey during the days of Prohibition when the family lived on Horseshoe Road. Corky added that his father’s family was famous for its bootlegging days.

Shortly after college, Donnelly took flight lessons and then joined the U.S. Navy, prior to World War II.

Donnelly’s friend, lifelong Oakdale area resident and World War II pilot, Tom Brennan said that Donnelly trained in Pensacola, Fla. and became a naval flight instructor in Corpus Christi, Texas. Brennan said that he was then called to report to the naval base in Alameda and was assigned with another pilot to fly over the Livermore/Altamont area, where they found it was an ideal area to build a naval air station to train pilots for the war.

While he was stationed in the Bay Area, Brennan said, Donnelly met his wife Helen at a drive-in in Modesto where she was a server.

During his years in the Navy, he flew combat aircraft and was part of a top-secret unit in the South Pacific during World War II. Brennan and Corky both talked about how Donnelly’s top-secret missions with his unit included using remote-control drones to bomb enemy Japanese ships. Mr. Donnelly stayed in the Navy until the late 1940s.

Mr. Donnelly returned to Oakdale and in 1950 he started Oakdale Feed & Seed. He worked at Oakdale Feed & Seed until he was 91 years old — a feat his son Corky called “amazing.”

Brennan recalled that Oakdale resident Vernon Rodden owned property where the Oakdale airport is currently located. With Donnelly’s help, they established the airport. In a prior Leader article about Donnelly, family members stated that while he and Rodden flew over the barley field, they felt it would make a nice landing strip.

“They landed the plane in the field, walked off enough distance to measure out a runway, and the Oakdale Airport was born,” it said in the Leader article. That was also in 1950, Corky said.

Donnelly was instrumental in starting flight school at the airport and gave flight lessons for many years. Brennan recalled that after the war, Donnelly received a government contract to give flight lessons to former G.I.s for pleasure-related flying. The airport was eventually sold to the city and he served on the Airport Commission for many years. The airport was dedicated and renamed Dan Donnelly Field in 1993.

He served for several years on the Oakdale City Council. Donnelly was a sitting city council member with other notable Oakdalean Gene Bianchi when the city’s time capsule was sealed in 1956 and Donnelly was present for Oakdale’s Centennial Celebration in 2006, when the time capsule was opened.

Donnelly was also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the City of Oakdale.

Brennan said that because of Donnelly, the land that Rodden owned became the airport and a great many people have used it and it’s still in use.

“He was a great person for the City of Oakdale, he belonged to a great many organizations,” Brennan added. “…He was always doing something for the city. He thought a lot of the area.”

Corky added that his father led a very accomplished life, and endured many hardships such as the Great Depression, World War II, and personal hardships as well.

He is survived by his children, Gregory ‘Corky’ Donnelly of Elk Grove, Kathy Donnelly, Kevin Donnelly, both of Oakdale; 14 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Helen; and sons, Jerry, Steve, and Dan, Jr.

A rosary will be held at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 26 at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Oakdale. A funeral will be at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, April 27, also at the church. Burial will follow at Lakewood Memorial Park, Hughson.

Oakdale-Riverbank Memorial Chapel in charge of arrangements.

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