At approximately 4:30 in the morning, on the 14th of November, Oakdale High’s Mrs. Murray officially clocked out. If you attended high school in Oakdale from early 1970 through the mid ‘90s, you knew her. She actually began her career there in the late ‘50s but called in absent for several years. The reason for absence: starting a family. Mrs. Murray was all things Business Office. She was happiest during the school year when students were present and complained about the loneliness of the summer months when footsteps echoed in the hallways, and she had no student body treasurer there by her side. If you purchased an Oracle and student body card, it was Mrs. Murray that took your payment and handed you a receipt. Additionally, many Oakdaleans met her at the ticket booth to purchase their tickets into a Friday night football game, or at the front of the gym to pay their way into a wrestling or basketball tournament during the holidays. She was always a member of the Non-credentialed Employees Union and served as president for several years. Her commitment and dedication to her job was exemplary. One reason for this is that it was impossible for Donna to give anything less than “her all” to whatever she committed. The second reason for her dedication was that her position at Oakdale High School was the closest she would ever get to fulfilling her heart’s hidden desire: being a teacher.
Donna was famous for her baking, especially pies. Her chocolate chip cookies were like no others. Just ask her grandson-in-law about breakfast at Gram’s. She loved reading. She enjoyed painting. She didn’t especially like to sew, but boy could she whip up curtains or bed quilts, pillow shams, and elaborate Halloween costumes, whatever was needed and without any kind of pattern. She knew how to make homemade play dough.
She let her kids drag home strays, but always with this reminder: Remember, this will be your responsibility for the remainder of this animal’s life, it doesn’t go when the newness wears off. Her yard was a labor of true love, in which she dedicated many hours of her life. She once told her daughter, “These plants and trees are old friends to me.” Donna did not mince words; you knew exactly how she felt and where she stood.
She was born in Withee, Wisconsin during the early years of The Great Depression.
At three years of age, she migrated to Oakdale with her parents, Justin and Jean Stapel and her two older brothers, Gale and Leighton. They settled in Valley Home where they remained longtime residents, even renting the parsonage of Valley Home Lutheran Church as the home to which she and her husband brought home their first child, Julie.
Oakdale Hospital, whose site is now Astoria Assisted Living, is where Donna gave birth to two more children: Laurie and Victor. She had a total of three children to which, like everything to which she was committed, “she gave her all.” However, this mother’s all required that she give twice the amount required of a parent. Ninety-one years on this Earth yields multitudes of highs and lows, joy and sorrow. When her children’s father inexplicably and unannounced decided to take a permanent leave of absence, Donna faced her greatest heartbreak and challenge. As a child of The Great Depression, she was no stranger to doing without, but when suddenly faced with $35 dollars in her bank account and three children to raise on her own, she had to summon uncommon grit and courage. That is what she did because that is who she was.
Throughout the years, she welcomed those her children chose for life partners, and once Donna accepted you as a member of the family, you were her family even when others changed their minds, you were forever in Donna’s heart. As the years progressed, her heart made room to include Jimmy Prater, Sherrie Harrison, Larry Granzella, Patti Van Leer and Wendi Dudley.
As often the case, her children brought her more children, the first of which is Joshua Prater. It was in his little boy’s voice that she first officially was gifted the title Gramma Nonna, and oh did she make room in that heart of hers. She embraced being “Gram,” whole heartedly, to all that followed Joshua: Jacob Prater, Steffanie Murray, Amy Murray, Nicole Brunker, Colleen O’Hare, Dustin Darnelle, Billy Darnelle, Kendalyn Van Hees and Kimberly Van Hees.
Many of these people to which she was “Gram” chose life partners. Gram did what she always did, welcomed them into her heart. So it was that Nelson Medina, Vanessa Curtis, Sherri Myers, Lieselotte Ransom, Julian Miranda, T’Shea Bryant and Natalie Darnelle entered the fold.
Gram became a “Great Gram” when her first born grandchild welcomed his daughter Siouxsie Prater into the world. Just before her 82nd birthday, her oldest granddaughter, Steffanie gave birth to Berton. Jacob’s son, Leighton, followed one month later. Emmie, Berton’s sister, holds the title of being her youngest great grandchild.
During the last three of Donna’s 91 years, she was not able to be by herself. Sherri Myers, Kendalyn and Kimberly Van Hees were the first to provide the assistance that her daughters alone could not give. Vascular Dementia was taking a toll, causing her debilitating issues with her memory and clarity. She could still participate in life, just not on her own. It was during this time that her heart made room for three special people who were not connected directly through family but became just as loved. Missy Craddock, Susan McCarthy and Sherry Flores took her for walks and long drives; went with her to restaurants and through Starbucks; raked leaves with and for her; sang songs with her and watched her favorite movies and shows (over and over); invited her into their own homes; shared their children, grandchildren and pets with her; cooked for her, showered and helped dress her; listened to her, talked with her and laughed with her. They loved her. In the end, they cried for her, as we all did, because it’s hard losing a heart in which you’ve lived.
A camphor tree, one of Donna’s old friends that she planted almost a quarter of a century ago, stands in the center of her backyard, her sanctuary. It has been privy to countless conversations and observed the comings and goings of Donna and the many of us she held dear in her heart. It is an evergreen, never without leaves, which are always there to rustle with even the slightest breeze, giving voice to messages carried on the wind. “We are listening Mrs. Donna Murray, Mom, Gram, and we thank you for your big heart, your uncommon grit and courage, for giving us your all.”
The Oakdale (Calif.) Leader
The Riverbank (Calif.) News
Nov. 29, 2023