Donna Canning
Donna Canning
Donna Canning
Donna Canning
Donna Canning
Donna Canning

Obituary of Donna Jean Canning

Donna was born on September 7th, 1934 in Long Beach, California to William Steller and Evelyn Smith Steller.  When she was one and a half years old, her mother left her father and took her and her brothers Bill and Bob to South Dakota to live with her mother’s sister, Grace.  When Donna’s brother, Bill, needed life-saving surgery, she went to live with on a farm  with another of her mother’s sisters, Trudy, and her uncle Claude, so that her mother could devote herself to caring for Bill. This was a difficult time for the family, but Donna was always grateful for the love and care she received from her aunt and uncle and for the experience of living on a farm.  In 1941, Donna’s mother went to work at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and Donna’s grandmother came to South Dakota from California to take care of her and her older brother.  She missed her mother, but was happy to be in the midst of her extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins.  She remained in contact with her cousins and her cousins’ offspring throughout her life, and some of them have journeyed to Salem to join us today in the celebration of her life. 


Donna would visit her mother in Arlington Virginia during the summers.  Donna’s mother chose to live in a basement apartment that was located in a nice house in a nice neighborhood so that Donna could be in a good school district.  The housekeeper that worked for the landlady brought her daughter to work with her.  She was the same age as Donna, and they became best friends.  Donna first became aware of issues of racial inequality and injustice from her personal experience with this friend.  She often recounted the story of going to the zoo with the housekeeper and her daughter, because it was the only place they could go together that was not segregated.  On the way to the zoo, she sat in the back of the bus with them, because they were not allowed up front.  As a little girl, she could not understand why this should be, and never wanted to be any part of it.


Donna eventually joined her mother on the East Coast, and she lived in Virginia for junior and senior high school.  She loved high school, and she attended high school reunions well into her 70s. 


Donna attended the University of South Dakota, where she studied Spanish, French and Education.  She was in the Chi Omega Sorority, and had the happiest memories of this time, both academically and socially.


Donna demonstrated her strong conviction for racial equality while serving as a camp counselor at the first integrated youth camp in the nation.  It was here that she met her future husband, Jerry Canning.  They married in 1956, and started their family shortly thereafter, bringing Terry, David, Elizabeth and Lauren into the world.


Donna started her professional career as a teacher, while Jerry completed his PhD at the University of Maryland.  When Jerry completed his degree, he was offered a teaching position at Willamette University, and the family moved to Salem in 1963.


Donna and Jerry purchased 20 acres of land just outside of Salem and built a big house in the woods, where Donna lived for the rest of her life.  She loved the quiet and beautiful natural setting.


After Donna and Jerry divorced in 1970, Donna opened her home to lodgers, foreign students, refugees, friends in need and all sorts of people in transition, who needed a place to stay for a while.  Dozens of people came to know the warmth of Donna’s generous heart over the decades.


Donna was an educator, and she taught in many capacities.  She was a pioneer in alternative education and played a key role in the Happy Time Nursery School Cooperative and the Salem Open School.  She was at the forefront of bilingual, bicultural education and worked in the Salem school system until she discovered her true calling teaching English as a Second Language at Chemeketa Community College.  Chemeketa was not just her job – the other teachers and staff, as well as many students, became her dearest lifelong friends.


Donna has been a member of the Unitarian Universalist congregation for 57 years.  She was one of the early participants in the extended family initiative, when the entire congregation was grouped into families.  Donna’s extended family is still active to this day, and still meets to celebrate special occasions together.


Donna had vast and wide-ranging interests.  She was an avid reader, and attended her book club up until her very last days.  She was a huge Portland Trailblazer fan, and she enjoyed few things more than watching a game with her son, David, especially if they were winning!  She loved opera, and was always brought to tears by the beauty of Pavarotti’s tenor.  She adored her cat, Pierre, and animals in general.  She had a sweet tooth, and had a special fondness for anything chocolate.


Donna had always dreamed of travelling, and thanks to her children, was able to visit Mexico , Guatemala, the Caribbean, Spain, Portugal, France, England, Switzerland, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Bulgaria, Thailand and Laos


Donna’s home away from home was Mexico, specifically Lake Chapala.  She first visited in 1969, and later spent every winter there, enjoying the sunshine, culture, friends and neighbors.


Donna had a generous nature, and gave what she could to multiple charities, particularly those that support animals, children, native americans and veterans.


Donna was a fierce democrat with strong political views.  She was often known to call senators to let them know what she liked and didn’t like.  She kept a comprehensive list of phone numbers next to her chair.  Her childrens’ earliest memories include attending political rallies and peaceful protests.


Donna had a great sense of humor, and she loved to laugh.  She would surf the late-night monologues for the best jokes, and never missed Saturday Night Live.

If you asked any person who knew her to describe Donna, the word “kind” would inevitably be mentioned.  Also, “smart”, “generous”, and “honest”.  Donna loved life, her family and many friends.  She is the epitome of a life well lived.


She is survived by her children, David, Elizabeth and Lauren, her grandchildren Aman, Chaz, Melissa and Cris, and her great-grandchildren, Alan and Esther.


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Memorial Service

2:00 pm
Sunday, May 22, 2022
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem
5090 Center Street NE
Salem, Oregon, United States
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