Elizabeth Blackwell 2016-04-14 01:12:56
A longtime Lion serves despite a debilitating illness. Past District Governor (PDG) Craig Donecker likes to say that the day you join Lions isn’t necessarily the day you become one. When he attended his first meeting of the Claflin Lions Club in Kansas at the age of 18, he saw it mainly as a way to network as he looked toward a future career. “I guess you could say I went for selfish reasons,” he remembers. “But everyone’s enthusiasm made me want to come back. When the district governor made his annual visit to the club and described how many people had been affected by our work, it just clicked.” Craig and Anna Donecker make a good team on road trips related to Lions. Forty years later, Donecker has become not only a true Lion, but a leader and model for others. He was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a teenager, a disease that has steadily weakened his muscles but not his dedication to Lionism. “I think the world of Craig,” says Linda Mc- Cormick, state executive secretary of the Kansas Lions. “He’s probably the most inspirational Lion in Kansas!” Claflin, a small farming town of 600 residents, is a tight-knit community with a close-knit, 20-member club. “It’s one of those Mayberry type-of places,” says Donecker. “Kids play outside, and everyone watches out for everyone else.” The Lions serve a critical role in maintaining the town’s public park and providing social events for residents, such as an annual seafood buffet and egg hunt at Easter. “It’s a big duck-hunting area, so the Lions have a big hunting breakfast at the opening of the season,” he says. But Donecker, who’s known for his gregarious personality, hearty laugh and self-deprecating humor, has made an impact far beyond his hometown club. He served as district governor in 2002-03 and remains active in education, serving as the Multiple District 17 coordinator for the Global Leadership Team and statewide director of Kansas’ vice-district governor and district governor-elect training. He is also on the board of the Great Plains Leadership Institute and the MD 17 Kansas Lions Foundation, as an appointee to the state’s Long Range Planning Committee. PDG Denny Smith of the Ulysses Lions Club says Donecker’s resilience and dedication have made him a role model. “All of us active in district and state leadership measure our commitment by the standards set by Craig, year after year.” Donecker leads club officer training. “I hear all the time that I can’t say the word no,” says Donecker. “I don’t look at what I do as work—it’s fun. I enjoy the process, and I enjoy the outcomes.” Though he now must use a wheelchair, Donecker says his limitations haven’t lessened his commitment. “It’s a normal part of my life now,” he says. “When I say I’m going to do something, I’ll do it the best I can. I’ve been that way all my life. It’s gotten a little harder to motivate when I’m giving a presentation—not everyone can see me, because I’m sitting rather than standing. I’m not going to run a marathon for charity. But if you need Christmas baskets packed, papers organized or phone calls made, I’m more than capable. If I can get to a club, I’ll do what I need to do.” ‘All my best friends are Lions. There’s always someone there to help pick me up. If I start to reach for a door, someone is there to hold it open.’ Donecker says his family has been an important source of support as he navigates the changes brought on by his disease. His two adult sons help run the family business, Little Giant Fittings, a manufacturer of pipeline repair products, and his five grandchildren all live close by. Donecker’s wife, Anna, a nurse and fellow Lion, refers to herself jokingly as “the pack horse—I do all the carrying.” But she admits the uncertainty of living with a progressive illness takes a toll. “We have our ups and downs, and each year it gets a little tougher,” she says. “Craig doesn’t always know what to do, and sometimes neither do I.” She says patience and humor have gotten them through the rough patches. “He’s a lovable guy, and he’s got personality plus,” she says. Donecker is not the kind of person who wants to be held up as a saint, and he admits it’s not always easy to present a cheerful face to the world. One of his long-cherished dreams was to be an international director, but he’s had to accept it will probably never happen because air travel has become too difficult. “I get down once in a while,” he says, “but you’ve got to accept it and deal with it. There’s always someone out there who has it worse, so why dwell on it? God dealt me this hand, and I’ve got to play it.” What helps him through the rough patches, he says, are the many Lions cheering him on. “All my best friends are Lions,” he says. “There’s always someone there to help pick me up. If I start to reach for a door, someone is there to hold it open.” Dan Funke of the Goddard Lions Club became friends with Donecker after they served in the same district governors’ class. (“I was Craig’s legs,” he laughs.) He says Donecker has a special talent for connecting with audiences. “When he speaks, it comes from his heart,” Funke says. “He’s a great motivator, and he’s one of those people who’s able to build a consensus. He’ll give suggestions, then let you run with your ideas.” Funke’s wife, Becky, will never forget Donecker’s support when she was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. “It was my birthday, and I found out it was his, too,” she remembers. “But he drove two hours so he could be with us at the hospital while we processed the news. When my husband had heart surgery, Craig stayed with me late into the night. He’s the kind of person who goes out of his way to help.” Everyone who knows Craig Donecker says he’s uncomfortable with praise. (Case in point: It took months of convincing to get him to agree to this story.) But he’s had to get used to public recognition. In the summer of 2014, he was awarded the Ambassador of Goodwill Award by International President Barry Palmer at the Kansas State Convention and received a standing ovation. “I was completely shocked when I was called to the front of the room,” he says. “It was a huge honor and very emotional for me.” “No one deserved that award more than Craig,” says Past International Director Ed McCormick, Linda Mc- Cormick’s husband. “He’s the most compassionate, caring person, and despite his disability, he continues to give so much. He exemplifies the best qualities of a Lion member and leader.” Donecker, not surprisingly, is quick to deflect credit. “There are so many great people in Kansas who’ve served at the national level, and I don’t think I’d be where I am today without those mentors,” he says. While he’s happy to encourage others who face physical challenges, he doesn’t want his disability to define him, either. “This is my life, and I don’t see the limitations others see. I’m still a benefit to my business and my family and Lionism. I honestly can’t imagine my life without Lionism—it’s part of me now.” Elizabeth Blackwell is a Chicago-based writer.
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