John R. Donaldson, 1925-2021: A scientist who sings, or a singer who does science? He hit the sweet spot.

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John R. Donaldson was a member of the Fresno Master Chorale for 65 years.

John R. Donaldson, one of the most dedicated musicians I knew, had an incredible balance in his life: He made the right and left sides of his brain sing together.

Dr. Donaldson, who died Sunday at age 95 after a brief illness, was a physicist with a doctorate from Yale, so he had the scientist-analytical-left-brain thing going on. And he was an ardent chorister, a man for whom song became a higher calling, which meant that the artistic-right-dominant side was robustly represented in that busy head of his. Add to that a penchant for public service (he was a former member of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors) and a bevy of other fascinating biographical details (champion discus thrower and All-American volleyball player, backpacker, world traveler), and you add up an existence on this earth lived to the fullest.

Nancy Price, writing in GV Wire, has an illuminating remembrance of John, including recollections from close friends and from Anna Hamre, music director of the Fresno Master Chorale, the chorus he helped to found and in which he sang for 65 years.

For me, one of the most compelling things about John, besides his booming voice, was the simple fact that he was always there. He was a fixture in the bass section. For a number of years when I sang and toured with the chorus to China, France and Israel, he brought his steady professorial presence to whatever the situation, whether a difficult rehearsal or getting lost in the Old City in Jerusalem. He had an inherent talent for bridging generations by relating to people 60 years younger with a genial charm.

And later, when I became just an audience member for the chorus, I made it a point to always pick John out of the massive group of black-clad singers on stage. He was a landmark, a familiar sight. In later years, he sat down when he sang. Wherever I’d find him, it felt like I was checking in.


In 2006, for a story I wrote about the chorus’s tour to Carnegie Hall in New York City — I got to cover it as a Bee reporter — I caught up with John to ask him what he thought.

“I decided I’d never even seen Carnegie Hall,” Donaldson says. “I’m 80 years old, and I figure I’d better get there.” (Little did he know that he’d still have a 15-year window.)

In 2016, in a Bee story celebrating the 60th anniversary of the chorus, I wrote:

At age 30, back in 1956, John Donaldson was there for the very first rehearsal of the newly founded Fresno Community Chorus.

At age 60, he celebrated his birthday in 1986 by performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor with the chorus. (“It was the best birthday I ever had,” he says.)

At age 90, he will sing the world premiere of a piece commissioned for the 60th anniversary of the chorus.

Thirty. Sixty. Ninety. I remember hoping that the scientist in John would appreciate the mathematical elegance.

John was a supporter of the arts. He was a lover of the Fresno Philharmonic. When a brouhaha unfolded over the firing of conductor Raymond Harvey, he stepped up as president of SOS (Save Our Symphony), which agitated for Harvey’s reinstatement. When that didn’t happen, he closed ranks and continued to support the musicians.

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He was also a faithful supporter of The Munro Review, for which I’ll always be grateful. He’d offer comments and the occasional email about my classical music coverage. (And when I’d make an error, he’d gently correct me.) The last email he sent, in 2019, was before the lockdown. He was asking about why the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” version of “Romeo and Juliet” didn’t play in Fresno.

He was always on top of things.

The highlight of the 60th anniversary concert that I wrote about in 2016 was a commissioned work. Chorus member Gladys Ruiz wrote the text. Years later, as I read through the lyrics again in preparation for writing this post, I thought of John:

Take up the verse, you who would stumble;
join the refrain, you who would speak. Whisper
hope, life, and compassion: drink in
joy, the eternal, and sing.
Like streams we gather, one river
song: we find home. Valley chorus,
fill the air with joyful song.

I wrote: Think of singers as a stream of voices that flows forever through the years, swirling and sloshing together into a powerhouse of song.

To John Donaldson: Your voice was — and is — part of that mighty river. Long may it flow.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (8)

  • Benjamin Boone

    Thank you for this remembrance of John. When I first arrived in Fresno in 2000 he was in a swimming class with me – one we took over and over from several years until coach Ara’s untimely death. Then when I started doing the pre concert talks fro the FPO, John was always there in the front. And yes, if something was unclear or misspelled he did let me know! You will be missed, John.

  • Jackie Ryle

    Beautiful tribute to a life truly well lived. Thank you, Donald. Thank you, John. May you Rest In Peace

  • expatbruce

    A kind and thoughtful human bring.

  • Anna Hamre

    John leaves a huge hole in our community. We are heartbroken, but we will celebrate him for a very long time.

  • Jane Donaldson

    Thank you for the wonderful tribute of my Dad

  • Pete Shannon

    John, Margaret, George – three of the greatest Hoot Owls that ever lived – and inspiring choristers, too –
    Pete Shannon

  • Dan Waterhouse

    John (and Shirley) were regular denizens of the old indoor pool at Fresno State for many years. That’s where I came to know them, especially John. Few people know that it was John who quietly paid to keep recreational swimming going during lean budget years in the 1990s. God speed, John.

  • A wonderfully written tribute to a most special Fresno treasure. The “Thirty Sixty Ninety” reference is indeed a particularly elegant accomplishment. The Fresno Master Chorale won’t be the same without John, and is much the richer for his having been there since the beginning. The “History” page of the Fresno Community Chorus, Inc. website was mostly written by John, his having lived all of it. His was a life well lived in so many aspects, and an inspiring example.


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