You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who knows more about the people and places of Swan’s Island than Donna Wiegle, even though she didn’t become a year-round resident until 2002. Maybe it’s because she provides health care at the local clinic. Maybe it’s because Donna has been writer and publisher of the Swan’s Island’s newsletter since 2005 and played a central role in the “memory project” to recover island history. But most likely it is just because of the kind of person she is.
Suffice it to say that Donna is a woman who is never at a loss for words. She is outspoken, vivacious, straightforward and passionate about Swan’s Island and its people, especially the spirit of the island’s older citizens. During our three-hour tour of the island, hardly a landmark or person passed by that did not evoke a story from Donna. Her devotion to the island community shines forth in every tale. During the course of the day, I also pieced together the story of how Donna and her husband, Charlie, became island dwellers.
Donna grew up in a small Pennsylvania town and went straight to work after high school. Few of her family members had even finished high school, so she didn’t give much thought to higher education. But after several years she was itching to do something more challenging with her life. At age 24 she picked up a catalog from a community college.
“In the photo for the medical technology program they were wearing those long white coats. It looked pretty important, so I signed up,” she said with a laugh. She may downplay her decision process, but Donna’s innate ability to connect with people made her a natural for the medical field.
Donna’s husband Charlie, another Pennsylvania native, introduced her to Swan’s Island. Charlie had been vacationing on the island since he was five years old, and Donna quickly fell in love with the place.
If it weren’t for two big events, Donna wonders if she and Charlie would ever have taken the leap into full-time island life. When she was 30, Donna was diagnosed with cancer. She recovered after treatment, but a young colleague of hers who was diagnosed at the same time died within a year.
“It was a big wake-up call. It affected me a lot.”
Donna had a changed perspective, but it wasn’t until September 2001 that she and Charlie found the courage to make a major life change. On their way home from Swan’s Island on 9/11, they heard about the terrorist attack. They stopped in Belfast in time to see the second plane hit the World Trade Tower on a television.
“We actually talked about going right back out to the island. It felt like a safer place to be.”
They didn’t return to the island that day, but within four months they had bought a house on Swan’s Island. At first, they did not expect to be year-rounders, but soon realized they could not maintain two homes financially.
“Something had to go, and we couldn’t leave Swan’s Island.” So they left Pennsylvania behind.
Charlie looked for work as a builder, and Donna looked for work with an open mind. “There’s no job beneath me if it helps me live,” she said. She started out mowing lawns all over town. Then she met Rusty Crossman, a 59-year-old lobster fisherman.
“He invited me to go out on the boat with him. I didn’t even know what that meant. He told me, ‘I mean going stern, you knucklehead,’ or something like that.”
So Donna was Rusty’s sternman for a season, and a great friendship was born.
“It was always an adventure with him. He loved nature, collected things in a 5 gallon bucket … he was an interesting man.”
Before winter, Rusty got a promise from Donna that she would fish with him again the following year, but when spring came around Rusty was sick with lung cancer.
“We still fished; he wanted to do it,” Donna said. But he grew steadily weaker. Since he had no local family, Donna ended up taking care of Rusty a lot, helping him at home and transporting him to appointments. He died that October. Donna brought me to a memorial garden outside the island’s health center and showed me a beautiful granite bench, dedicated to Rusty Crossman.
More than anything else she did as a newcomer, Donna’s care for Rusty surely endeared her to Swan’s Islanders. Her openhearted ways connect her equally with both summer people and locals. They appreciate her newsletter, her roadside gardening supply center, her Zumba classes, her prize-winning chowder, her winter walking program and her health care education sessions. Most of all, even if they roll their eyes at her passionate outbursts at town meeting, they all appreciate her loving care of Swan’s Island and every person on it.
Toward the end of our visit, Donna tried to sum up her life on Swan’s Island.
“I’m not religious,” she said, searching for the right words, “but I kind of believe in karma. If you do good, then good will come from that. I admit, sometimes I think it’s taking a pretty long time for the good stuff to get here. But other times I look around and I think — no place could ever be better than this. This is my heaven.”
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions for future columns. Please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.