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Disheveled dean of Diné journalism: Bill Donovan, March 7, 1946 – July 30, 2022

Navajo Times File | Adron Gardner
Navajo Times correspondent Bill Donovan poses with towers of books from his personal collection numbering more than 13,000 at his home in Gallup on April 21, 2017..

By George Hardeen
Special to the Times

Bill Donovan is the first guy I ever loved.

For the 38 years I knew him, I never told him that until last week, shortly before he died.

For me, and many of us who worked with him at the Navajo Times, Gallup Independent and Arizona Republic, love is really the best way to describe the affection and admiration we felt.

Bill was an extraordinarily gentle, kind-hearted, generous, prodigious, prolific and joyful human being.

On July 19, I heard that Bill had died. Thank goodness that was wrong. He was in the hospital ICU and awake.

I began to text his daughter Kelly every day. Every day she read the cards he was receiving to him and added my stream of texts and photos.

His physical strength was fading but not his wit. After a text on National Coffee Milkshake Day, she said he made a wisecrack with a big smile.

I always called him Bill although he was just as well-known to everyone as Donovan.

Without any detectable ego, with no desire for recognition, awards or accolades, Bill wrote more over 50 years and knew more about Navajos, the Navajo Nation, Navajo government and its political intrigue than anybody who ever lived or anyone who ever will. He made it look effortless, as natural to him as breathing.

Today, it would be physically impossible to match what he did over five decades, talk to the countless tribal leaders he knew well or to develop the hundreds of off-the-record sources in Navajo government.

He got people to talk, cranked out stories week after week, and reported thousands throughout his long career.

Since moving to California, Bill’s assignment was to report on what happened throughout Navajo history 50 years ago. More often than not, he lived it and reported it when it was happening.

Kelly told me that while he was in the hospital, he was still talking about his next deadline. That was his joy, what he was called to do, his purpose.

Bill took notes on the backs of envelopes, on napkins, on scraps of paper. I saw them and wondered, what the heck?

Rather than look through his notes to write his story, as most reporters do, he would write his story from memory and then look through his notes to check it.

His memory and institutional knowledge were the secret to his speed. That made it possible for him to write five to 10 stories per weekly edition when the rest of us were lucky to complete two.

Bill was fired from the Navajo Times seven times, he said last week – more than anyone in its history. All but once it was because tribal officials didn’t like what he wrote, and they controlled the paper.

The last time wasn’t his fault. It was Feb. 19, 1987, when the entire staff of the Navajo Times was fired and the paper was shut down by the MacDonald administration.

Navajo Times TODAY then was a five-day-a-week daily. Its forced closure was an historic moment in Native journalism that became part of a U.S. Senate investigation.

When we discussed that again by text last week, Bill said simply, “Those were the days.”

As a brand-new reporter in Page, Arizona, in 1983, I remember seeing Bill’s constant byline and Window Rock dateline in the Arizona Republic.

He seemed to know and report everything about Navajo. I didn’t know what a Navajo rug was. Long before I met him, he was my Navajo journalism role model.

So I imagined this serious, clean cut, buttoned-down, tucked-in type, perhaps an athlete of some kind. Boy, was that wrong. Instead, for all the time I knew him, Bill was a little … disheveled.

For years, I didn’t think he ever cleaned his glasses. That didn’t seem to bother him if he even noticed.

He never had a beard but he always tended to miss a lot when he shaved. His shirt never seemed to stay tucked in in the back. His pants were always a little more than baggy.

All of this was part of his loveable charm. You couldn’t not love the guy. Unless, of course, you were the target of one of his political stories.

His car was its own story. Over the last few days a few of us have happily remembered how his seats and floor were always filled with food wrappers, soda cups, boxes, papers and Bill’s many books.

Bill loved McDonald’s and his car showed it. Kelly told me he asked for McDonald’s last weekend just before he died. So on Sunday I celebrated him with a Big Mac, fries and a Coke. I saved the wrapper to leave in my truck, just like Bill.

Our old friend Jerry Kammer reminded me that Bill’s car was stolen once. The thieves abandoned it in Chinle, probably because of all the junk Bill kept in it.

When he got it back, he drove it like nothing had happened, as if he really didn’t mind them borrowing it. Same thing when his house got robbed. Nothing to steal but books.

Navajo Times File | Adron Gardner
Books rest at the porch of Navajo Times correspondent Bill Donovan at his home in Gallup on April 21, 2017.

Bill was never without a book. In an old photo when his kids Ricky and Kelly were babies, there’s a book.

He bought books every weekend in Albuquerque when he would go there to watch four movies.

He read constantly, everywhere, never wasting even a minute, even at stoplights, waiting for interviews, waiting for breakfast at the old Motor Inn.

Every hallway in his house, every room and every inch of his garage was lined with books. Piles, stacks, rows of books.

Bill said he read every book on the New York Times bestseller list, and I believe him.

His retirement plan was to open a used bookstore. Amazon and Kindle messed that up. When he moved to California in 2018, he donated 13,000 books worth well over $100,000 to the Gallup and Navajo Nation libraries.

To many of us, Bill was and always will be the dean of Navajo journalism. He earned that title through his unmatchable work ethic and productivity.

It doesn’t matter at all that he wasn’t Navajo. He was the Navajo storyteller.

As Kelly told me, the Navajo Times was his life. He certainly loved the Independent and Independent’s family just as much.

From the time of typewriters, reporters put “-30-” at the bottom of their stories to let their editors know that was the end and no more would be coming.

So, Bill, until your next story … -30-


Bill Donovan portrait

Navajo Times File | Adron Gardner
Bill Donovan


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