I never had the privilege of sitting in Don D’Amato’s classroom, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t my teacher. If you read the Beacon newspapers, or PrimeTime Magazine, Don was your teacher, too. He was all of our teachers. It’s what he loved to do, and it’s what he did best.
And like a senior graduating to take on the world, I can only hope that I make Don proud. Don D’Amato passed away on Friday, and Rhode Island lost one of its best teachers.
A consummate educator, Don D’Amato had a way of sneaking history into everyday conversations. He made mundane textbook information interesting, adding the colorful details that weren’t necessarily crucial to the timeline of history but made the story stick. He taught me that Rocky Point wasn’t just an amusement park. He taught me how rich Newport socialites shaped the Rhode Island economy. He taught me that pirates and wrongful accusations aren’t only the stuff of movies.
He could recall dates and names and family bloodlines at a moment’s notice. When he walked through Warwick, Cranston, Johnston – any city or town in Rhode Island – he saw the state through a historian’s eyes. He could recognize the mark of a historic home, a church steeped in tradition or a village that at one time served as a cornerstone of local commerce.
Best of all, Don never stopped learning.
That is something we could all stand to learn. Despite his reputation in Rhode Island, he wasn’t one to drop names or make you feel like an idiot because you thought the Dorr Rebellion had to do with home improvement. For Don, it was about sharing his passion. That’s why he wrote books, and columns, and academic articles. It wasn’t about getting his name out there – it was about getting history out there, and sparking that interest in others. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who is less of a showboat than Don. He was named the city of Warwick’s official historian in 1985, longer than I’ve even been alive, but I only know that because I work for the Beacon; not once did Don ever mention it.
When I heard the news of Don’s passing, I tried to remember the first time I met him. I knew the name before we met, of course, as my family had long subscribed to the Warwick Beacon. Not being much of a history buff, I have to admit, I was slightly intimidated by that name. I was coming in as the editor of PrimeTime, and I felt sure that a longtime contributor like Don would laugh right in my face. His work was a big reason many people picked up the magazine, so what did I know? After all, I was 21 years old, taking the reins of a senior living magazine. I already felt like a fraud, and I convinced myself that the decision to let a recent college graduate steer the ship and write about Medicare would lead to staff defections.
I was wrong about the defections, thankfully, and had nothing to worry about with Don. He didn’t need any guidance – he knew what he was doing – but he also didn’t pull rank. If Publisher John Howell thought I was up for the job, then that was just fine with Don. Without fail, every month, Glimpse of Rhode Island’s Past was in my inbox, with a warm greeting from Don or one of his daughters. He never missed a deadline. Over the months that followed, he was generous with his praise for my vision for the magazine, and I came to very much look forward to hearing his voice over my shoulder. On Thursdays or Fridays, he would come walking by, dropping off his columns and historic photos, and sharing a preview of what was to come for that month’s installment in PrimeTime.
In the past year or so, Don’s health started to decline, and his vision gave him problems. He needed his daughter to type up his columns, and he leaned on her for support. But like Don, Terry always has a smile on her face. Those weekly visits were made doubly pleasant by her presence, and as they made the rounds through the office, even a new kid like me could see how fondly the staff felt about the family. They are a part of our family, and I’m grateful that PrimeTime gave me the chance to know them.
I learned a lot from Don’s columns, but what I’ll take away most from him is his spirit. Even on a bad day, Don never complained. If you asked how he was feeling, he’d just smile and say he was getting by. He always looked on the bright side.
In his absence, I suppose that’s a lesson all of us can take to heart. One more homework assignment from Mr. D’Amato.