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Sean Kirst: From Olcott to devastated Puerto Rico and, today, Buffalo

It was not the destination a kid from Olcott expected. David Donovan is a longtime resident of the island of Vieques, part of Puerto Rico. Before he enlisted in the Navy, more than 40 years ago, Donovan's longest journey beyond Western New York was to Toronto.

Things turned out in a way he could not envision. For that, Donovan credits the Navy — and the absolute symbol of that opportunity, to Donovan, is the old USS Little Rock, a ship on which he served. As recently as last summer, his hand-scrawled notes from the 1970s were still on a plotting board on the ship, now a part of the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park.

Whenever he sees the Little Rock in Buffalo, he remembers "being in the middle of the ocean, where the skies were just so spectacular, and you could lay there on your back and look up at the expanse."

So Donovan flew home for today's dedication ceremonies at Canalside, where — for the first time in the 242-year history of the Navy — a new ship was commissioned alongside a decommissioned ship of the same name. Donovan, as a former crew member, had a chance to be part of the audience that was "front and center" for the ceremony.

After all these years, he was surprised at his own emotion during the playing of "Anchors Aweigh," while the crew boarded a ship that was now an official part of the American fleet. It was especially powerful to contemplate the age of many of those sailors, including the ones who helped him find a seat.

"They were so young," Donovan said, which made him fully realize:

My God. That used to be me.

It was another memorable element of an emotional visit. This is the first time he's seen snow in years. Friday, he drove through the incoming storm with nephew C.J. to watch "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" at the Walden Galleria.

Even a galaxy far, far away brought him back to the reason he's here. He saw the original "Star Wars" in Paris, as a member of the Navy, sitting in the theater with a group of close friends.

They'd all bunked in the same quarters, when they were stationed on the Little Rock.

Donovan also comes here as a quiet witness to ongoing disaster. He is a retired chef who has lived in Vieques for 26 years. He watched as Hurricane Maria blasted the island in September. It was 52 days before drinking water was restored. In the early days, Vieques — still struggling — was essentially on its own.

Three months later, there is still no consistent source of power. Some people are fortunate enough to use generators, but that's complicated by a lack of enough fuel. Gasoline lines with dozens upon dozens of cars are commonplace at service stations. Breakdowns with ferry service have intensified shortages of food.

Many roads remain blocked by brush and debris, and one of the great concerns is the possibility, as all the brush dries, of wildfires in a place with scarce resources to fight them.

The worst situation is at the Vieques hospital. Because of a problem with mold inside the building, patients are treated at what amount to MASH tents outside the building, Donovan said. There are significant challenges delivering what ought to be standard treatment, like dialysis.

While Vieques is always on his mind, Donovan, 60, is glad for the respite in Western New York, glad to see his relatives again.

"I needed a break," he said.

David Donovan shares his crab cakes recipe, in Vieques, with YouTube's QuickFixYoga.

It is a pleasure, he said, to walk into a room, hit a light switch and know that it will work. It feels good to swing into a gas station and to reach a pump, without a wait. The months after the hurricane have been a trial, and Donovan is happy to see his hometown again, during the yuletide.

Still, he intends to fly out Monday. His heart is in Puerto Rico.

Donovan learned to speak Spanish in Boston. As a chef, he wanted to be able to converse with some Colombian employees on the staff. He first went to Vieques in 1991, on what he thought was a visit.

He fell in love with the place.

"That's my home," he said. "There's something very unique, very special about that island. People are very warm, very gracious, very welcoming. There are wild horses that wander through town. It's almost like a land that time forgot."

Lou Michel: Little Rock commissioning in Buffalo has special meaning for residents of namesake community

He found it important to be at Saturday's ceremony. He stays in touch with close friends from his time on the Little Rock, friends scattered around the country. They talked about meeting him in Buffalo for the commissioning, but the holidays are a hard time of the year to travel, and his friends knew December in Buffalo would be cold.

David Donovan, during his time in the Navy. (Family image)

Beyond all else, the Little Rock is a symbol of how the world opened up to Donovan, long ago.

He went into the Navy as an 18-year-old, after graduating from Newfane High School. The regional economy was plummeting. His dad had just been laid off from a longtime job as a steelworker. Donovan was a teen with some fear of leaving town, but he understood the military could be an opportunity.

"I was oldest of four kids, and there was no income or prospects of income," he said.

More than four decades later, he is a property manager on a Caribbean island, where his passion is saving abandoned dogs. He served for years as a board member for the Humane Association in Vieques.

Donovan has seven rescue dogs of his own, dogs he takes for long walks on gorgeous beaches, and he has helped find homes over the years for dozens of animals.

"They're my family," said Donovan, who intends to be home with them soon.

As for Buffalo, he did what he came here to do. His attendance at Saturday's commissioning was a chance to offer thanks.

In Puerto Rico, Donovan lives a life he could never have imagined, as a child in Olcott.

Looking back, he knows that voyage began on the Little Rock.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.




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