Our Stories: Dr. Donald Felder
We began as Dr. Felder shared about his love and memories of his mother. “Mom and I would take field trips by train from Seattle to Louisiana.” He is full of stories of why those trips were so important, including both getting to the final destination of Baton Rouge, LA, and stopping along the way. Dr. Felder commented that this last birthday was the first one where his mother did not participate (she passed on about a month prior). “Every day, something happens, or there is an activity that is so reminding of my mom. You know, I was on a call and there was a young lady by the name of Naomi, and that was like a cup runneth over because I didn’t expect it. Here was another moment where I had to say, ‘Am I going to rejoice in this moment or am I going to feel a sudden rush of sadness?’ There are these moments where I have to choose, so I try to hang on to those memories when those moments come.” He reflects that he and his siblings are closer now than in recent years. He smiled, knowing that his mother would be pleased.
With his soothing voice, Dr. Felder shared about the intimate relationship he once had with his uncle and how this uncle sparked in young Dr. Felder curiosity in the world beyond his neighborhood and immediate family. From an early age, Dr. Felder would cook in the kitchen with his beloved uncle who was very much like a father. As they were cooking, Uncle Peter would talk about his experiences traveling in Italy and share different adventures. Every once in a while, Uncle Peter would burst out speaking or singing in Italian. The young Dr. Felder would ask, “Help me understand how you can do this, being raised in the South?” Suddenly, the world opened up, and “it was always in the back of my mind, how important it is to know more than your neighborhood.”
Our conversation was full of reflection and laughter. Dr. Felder’s laugh has a jolly bounce to it with interruptions of choppy chuckles. His smile is contagious and makes it easy to talk to him about almost anything. At one point, he held up a comic book from his desk and and shared a fond and early memory, “I was a reader and I used to love reading ghost stories; turning off lights, getting a flashlight, and having a jelly donut,” Dr. Felder reflected. He continued, “There was one book called Captain Ghost and I can remember it felt as if there was a ghost in the room that night, and I can remember never reading that book again.” More laughter and a million more chuckles, because who knew that jelly donuts and the combination of A&W Root Beer mixed with Orange pop (soda) was proper scary-book protocol?
Moving on to middle school, Dr. Felder was active in sports, playing football, baseball, and basketball. He and his classmates got into it with rival middle schools when no adults were around. You know, those rival fights that children have.... Rocks may or may not have been thrown. It was constant and it was mutual. “Outside the schoolhouse, I was a bit mischievous, but I always looked after the elders in the neighborhood. We would go by and cut grass and pick up leaves. My mom would send me across the street, down the street, and around the corner to take care of someone’s yard.” He admits to getting maybe one dollar for the yard work, but confirms that the smiles on their faces was the most valuable thing for him and his brother.
Dr. Felder did not imagine himself graduating high school. He eventually went on to university, then to complete his doctorate and this was only possible by allowing community members to counsel and guide him. He is grateful for the teachers who told him what he was capable of and who advised him along his journey. “The people who come into your life may not look like you, but help you get to where you need to be. I would have never realized that that relationship could come outside of my family… My support was based on the circle I chose to exist in.”
He later traveled to Boston, Massachusetts, and was able to walk a trail of the Underground Railroad and “that was probably the turning moment of how I thought about myself because there was a connection to the history that was being displayed that I didn’t know about, and it created such curiosity that I started seeking more information about the history, and that is when I started spending more time talking with my uncles about their time in the Army.”
In the same way Uncle Peter was a strong presence in his life, today Dr. Felder is a strong presence in the lives of many young people. As I mentioned earlier, he is still in classrooms with students, and when time allows, he will sometimes close out the meeting with a song. Acapella tones of alto and baritone echo as he sings words that make all in the room smile. He sings first, then everyone else joins in. The simplicity of the song makes for a welcome sense of belonging with lyrics which are repeated again and again until you feel wrapped up in a warm hug: