There are some people – not many, but some – who are larger than themselves, who are iconic, almost immortal, because their light is not housed in a regular human vessel. They’ve shone in a certain corner of the world long enough and brightly enough that seeing them in the produce aisle of ShopRite, or slinging sausages and red peppers at the St. Joseph’s Festa, or even perching, sometimes for hours, on a wooden bench at the Moriello Pool to watch their grandchildren swim in a summer recreation meet, was as comforting as seeing a lighthouse from shore. You knew you were home. The landscape was intact, the community was soldiering on and everything was right in the world.
Donna LaPolt, 79, was one of those rare individuals. She was ubiquitous. She seemed to be everywhere at the same time because she made an art out of showing up. She and her husband Bob, married for 58 years, were at every concert, recital, sporting event, swim meet, talent show, church festival, emergency service fundraiser, preschool, middle school and high school graduation and a thousand things in between. She went where her three children went and where their children went and where she found solace and where she found God and where, most of all, she was needed.
And she did this while remaining human. She would complain about one of the many injustices going on in the world, brag about something her granddaughter had accomplished, talk about her latest health scare, laugh that beautiful laugh while delicately holding her husband’s arm for support and talking to anyone and everyone who passed by.
It wasn’t like life had been a buttery path for Donna. It had some rough terrain, but she moved forward with love. That’s the difference, and those around her felt understood and heard and like they could lay their burdens down. Donna would sit right there and listen, because not only did she show up, but she was also present – whether as a volunteer of the New Paltz Rescue Squad for decades, as a mother, grandmother, wife and sister, as a pillar of the Catholic Church, as a ceramicist and pottery teacher, assistant chief of security at Mohonk Mountain House, co-founder of the New Paltz Youth Program and as someone who had absolutely no tolerance for injustice: a trait that she has passed onto her children.
Her oldest daughter Dina is now one of the most powerful entertainment and music industry lawyers in the country, who represents Steven Tyler, deadmau5 and has handled the affairs for the Tupac and Afeni Shakur estates. Dina said that, while her mother was many things, including an EMT, an artist and an activist, one of her most vivid memories of Donna was this: “When I was 10 years old, my brother was and my sister 5, I witnessed my mother pulling a ‘Whites Only’ sign off a water fountain at a beach in Florida. While the authorities were called, my Dad was busy trying to mitigate the situation and my mother took us three kids to the Black beach for safety. Years later, when I asked why she thought we’d be safe at the Black beach, she replied, ‘Because the police would never go there.’”
When asked if there was a quality in her mother that she would most like to emulate, Dina said, “That she always helped people without expecting anything in return. She was a selfless person, putting everyone first before herself – mostly her family.”
It’s no wonder that practically the entire 12561 population filed into Copeland’s Funeral Home in a snowstorm to honor Donna’s passing last Sunday afternoon, December 11 and to embrace her family and each other. Donna had already survived esophageal cancer and was well on the road to recovery when she was diagnosed with leukemia; things started to move in the wrong direction, quickly. Thankfully, Dina and her wife and children were able to get to New Paltz, as well as her grandchildren, who were away at college, and she was surrounded by her loved ones as they played “Let it Be” and songs by James Taylor. No setting could have been more fitting and beautiful for someone like Donna to embark from this plane.
Donna’s granddaughter Tessa LaPolt laughed about all of these things she’d been learning about her grandmother in the last 48 hours. “I loved talking to people about the pottery store she ran and learning what a talented artist she was and the connections she made with so many different people. She’d be on the phone and we’re like, ‘Who are you talking to?’ and she’d shush us and say, ‘Eddie,’ and we’re like ‘Eddie who?’ and she whispered, ‘Eddie Money.’ Apparently, he’d had esophageal cancer too, and somehow they became buddies.” Tessa pointed to a picture that one of the grandchildren had drawn, framed and hanging along with the flower arrangements; Donna had loved it and called her “skinny Grandma portrait.”
“The Army and Donna are the two things that made me who I am,” said her husband Bob, sandwiched by his son Glenn, daughter-in-law Mel and grandson Brian. He then delighted in telling the story of how he had met Donna at a local soda shop and gone on to woo her into marrying him.
Glenn, a history teacher, swim coach and endurance athlete, said that his mother wore so many hats. “I saw her as my Mom and then as a Grandma. As I got older, I became increasingly aware that my Mom was so much more than that.” He referenced the plethora of social media posts that highlight his mother’s impact on so many different people. “She was able to sense people’s needs and morph into the role that the person needed – whether this was a safe space, confidante, co-worker, conspirator, swim mom, activist, cookie-maker, fighter.
“She once rumbled my baseball coach who made the mistake of pushing me down. Through all of this amazing life and amazing journey, she was first and foremost my Mom. Whether driving us to the pool, throwing dukes with Mr. Schobert because he pushed me, coming to my anniversaries or coming to watch me start every SOS [Survival of the Shawangunks Triathlon], she was there for me. She was there, always – at all our events, at all of our kids’ events, all the time. She suited up and she showed up. She showed up for my Dad, my sisters, her grandkids, her expanded family, her town. She made us all better. That is what I have learned from my Mom.”
Corrine LaPolt, the youngest child of Donna and Bob, said that it was difficult to see the entire scope of who her mother was when she was alive. “I saw her through the eyes of a child, not the eyes of a woman. Participating in the writing of the eulogy, having her whole life laid out in black-and-white, it was very easy to see what everyone sees: She was extraordinary – selfless, driven, purposeful. I see her in my sister. I see her in my brother. I feel her within me. We are her legacy.”
The New Paltz Rescue Squad stood guard at her open casket, rotating every 15 minutes so that her beautiful spirit was never left unattended. Outside, two NPRS ambulances flagged the doors with ribbons for Donna draped over them.