Donald S. McCluskey, 1921 - 2022
Donald S. McCluskey, long-time resident and environmental leader on Block Island, has died at age 101. His long life and career stretched across many of the greatest changes of the last century.
Don was well-known for the passion that he and his wife Dorothy McCluskey (1928- 2013) brought to civic, environmental, and social affairs on Block Island. Even in his eleventh decade, he helped develop two ambitious visions that emerged from their decades-long commitment to preserving the island’s treasured environment.
First, Don saw Block Island as a model for replacing fossil fuel with clean energy, as a step toward easing the global climate crisis while also enhancing the local environment and community. Discussions between Don and solar energy expert David Reidy led to the formation of the Block Island Solar Initiative, which supports residential rooftop solar panels and energy-efficient affordable housing and has expanded into subsidies for heat pumps,
electric vehicles, electric lawn equipment, and more. To build Block Island’s national environmental leadership, Don encouraged the Initiative’s plans for an electric bus for the local school this fall and for the Block Island Power Company to convert to an electric bucket truck in 2023.
The second of Don’s recent endeavors involves developing a demonstration project highlighting regenerative agriculture and land stewardship on the McCluskey family’s Champlin Road property. Don saw this goal as equivalent in global importance to the transition to renewable energy.
In addition to his extensive conservation work, he was an early member of the Block Island Club, whose members even named two of its boats Don and Dorothy. He was also a Board member of the Block Island Maritime Institute, which provides educational programs about the biodiversity of Block Island’s endangered ecosystems.
Don’s energy was legendary: His love of sailing began in his youth and lasted well into his Block Island years. In his 60s, Don got the speed bug and became an avid windsurfer (he had a windsurfing van and yes, he could do a duck jibe!). In his late 70s he transitioned back into sailboats, actively sailing and racing a J-105 and later a J-80 in Block Island Thursday Night Races and Block Island Race Week. He was a beautiful, smooth and precise downhill skier and could be spotted on the expert slopes at Vail, Colorado as late as his mid90s, only reverting to cross-country skiing, another life-long passion, after that. He and Dorothy instilled a love of winter and snow
in their entire family.
At 100, he still took daily workouts on his stationary bicycle and rowing machine. Don was an exacting oarsman who repeatedly lectured his family on the importance of proper feathering. He took his last round trip rowboat journey from Bonnell Beach to Cormorant Cove at age 100. He was a zealot for healthy eating, and urged others to follow suit. His advice on longevity was – characteristically – as terse as his life was long: “Eat your kale!”
Donald Shepard McCluskey was born on February 17, 1921 in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Charles and Lora McCluskey. Don and his younger brother Robert attended public schools in New Haven and both matriculated at Yale University. Robert went on to a celebrated career in medical research. Don pursued an engineering degree, graduating in 1942.
Growing up in New Haven’s Morris Cove neighborhood, Don was drawn to the nearby waters of the Long Island Sound. He joined Sea Scouts at an early age and embarked on ever-wider adventures as he grew up, notably in the company of his close friend and fellow gymnast Walter Lange. As teenagers in the 1930s, the two built their own boat, The Spray, and sailed it up and down the southern New England coast. It was on The Spray that he made his first visit to Block Island - as he recalls it, to refuel on milk from Champlin’s Farm. One fine day in 1938 off Fishers Island, he and Lange were surprised by the arrival of the worst hurricane to batter the New England
shore in the 20th century. Their tiny self built boat broke apart when a yacht owned by the DuPont family crashed into her hull. Everyone got to safety, but in an age when weather warnings and telephone communications were rudimentary, McCluskey’s family only found out that he survived three anxious days later.
As the American war effort ramped up, Don volunteered his years of skiing experience and joined the Tenth Mountain Division ski troops at their training base at Camp Hale, Colorado for a short period before pursuing officers’ training. In January 1945 he shipped off for Europe aboard the Ile De France, a French troopship seized by the British earlier in the war. In the midst of a terrible storm off Iceland, Don recalled that, as the other 10,000 soldiers on board got seasick, he alone was able to serenely enjoy his breakfast. On the Continent, he joined an engineering division in the 10th Army in the wake of the Battle of the Bulge and helped supervise the construction of
pontoon bridges over the Rhine in the waning days of the war. McCluskey then served in the Counter-Intelligence Corps in a “deNazification” unit commanded by Henry Kissinger in Bavaria, where his job was to identify local regime leaders and bring them to trial.
Like many in his generation, Don hoped his World War II experience could serve as inspiration to end warfare altogether. In 1946, he returned to Europe to work in the new United Nations International Refugee Organization, founded under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt. Don studied languages and culture in Geneva, worked with refugees in Czechoslovakia, and traveled extensively in Europe, fitting in time for skiing in Switzerland and Norway.
Back in New Haven, a file on Don’s experiences caught the eye of a young Dorothy Soest, then working at Yale. She shared Don’s values, and several outings with the local ski club brought the two together as a couple. They were married in 1954. Three children followed. The family settled in Northford, Connecticut.
Don took his engineering training to a job with MB Electronics, a firm that produced early vibration equipment used to test the strength of engine mounts in American fighter planes. When the corporate conglomerate Textron bought the company, Don and his colleagues Karl Unholtz, John Dickie, and Gerry Reen struck out on their own, founding the Unholtz-Dickie Corporation in 1959. Their company quickly won sales contracts to develop a new generation of electrodynamic “shakers.” Clients included NASA, defense agencies, aviation, and satellite companies among other industries. Their vibration machines contributed to the development of the first air bag sensor systems for automobiles.
Meanwhile, family sailing trips in Long Island Sound led to longer stays on Block Island and soon to the purchase of the family’s property on Champlin Road. Dorothy’s career bloomed as well when she was elected to the Connecticut state legislature. There she turned her Yale Forestry School degree toward land and watershed conservation issues at a moment when the environmental movement was burgeoning across the world.
As the McCluskeys spent more time on Block Island, they teamed up with local civic activists to conserve crucial wild habitat that was under increasing pressure from developers. At the same time, Don responded to the high cost of installing an electric line by connecting his home to a small wind turbine followed by an early photovoltaic solar array that allowed him to take the house off the local grid. For a while he operated the island’s first solar installation company. He was an early adopter of solar hot water and heat pumps, and drove hybrid, then all-electric vehicles as they came on the market.
Don’s home remained a hive of Block Island social and civic activity even after Dorothy’s death in 2013. He was a favorite sight in the Fourth of July parade riding his Segway. Don hosted regular sing-alongs on his porch, entertaining participants with his old-world accordion. Family and friends loved him for his salty sense of humor. It came out when he goofed around with grandkids with puns and limericks, and when he sang pungent old accordion numbers in many languages. An intergenerational family joke about messy eating on sailing trips led him to give his sailboat the wry name Ketchupless. His beloved rowboat became Ketchupless II.
As he approached the century mark, Don delivered increasingly avid admonitions to his guests to solarize their homes, purchase electric cars - and, like him, to transform their gardens by employing soil-friendly no-till practices and planting native species.
A final summer on Block Island found Don hard at work in meetings, and still able to take a turn or two on his rowing machine, dubbed Ketchupless III. His vaunted energy finally waned, however, and he passed away peacefully in Mystic, Connecticut on August 31, 2022.
Donald S. McCluskey is survived by his son Peter McCluskey, his daughters Martha McCluskey and Chris Jensen; his sons in-law Pete Jensen, Carl Nightingale, and Robert Lecnik; his granddaughters Liesl Jensen, Trine Jensen, and Mbali McCluskey-Nightingale; his niece Ann Farr, nephew James McCluskey, and sister-in-law Jean McCluskey; and Laurie Lautieri and Mimi Leveille, who - along with many of their own family members - gave devoted professional and personal support for Don’s work and health for much of the past decade, becoming integral to the close extended community that surrounded Don.
At Don’s request, there will be no public memorial. Arrange donations in Don’s name to the Solar Initiative by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
To all of those whose lives he touched on the island and off, there is no better parting salute than the one he offered each time he raised his glass at his dinner table.
“Here’s mud in your eye!”