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Bellevue at 150: Bill Donnermeyer's Life in Service to the City

The City of Bellevue turns 150 years old in 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its sesquicentennial celebrations have been postponed for a year. In the meantime, local writer and attorney James Dady is writing some pieces about the city and they will be published at The River City News. This is one in a series.

William Irvin Donnermeyer, known to one and all as Bill, helped save the world from tyrants in two wars, helped shape Kentucky’s destiny in the highest councils of state government.

He’s the answer to a Bellevue trivia question – for whom is the street named that runs from the Newport line past Kroger to the foot of Lafayette Avenue – Donnermeyer Drive?

He was born into the family of Frank and Bertha Donnermeyer that eventually encompassed eight children and lived in a series of homes along Fourth Street in Dayton. Three brothers slept in one room.  Before long, the Great Depression hung heavy on the family. “It was a treat if you had a nickel for a Pepsi or an ice-ball,” Mr. Donnermeyer recalls. His father had at one time been a foreman at a forerunner of U.S. Shoe, but conditions became such that he had to take employment with the Works Progress Administration – the WPA. In its eight years of existence the WPA employed 8.5 million Americans, principally in the construction of public works projects. “My father thought Franklin Roosevelt was the best,” Mr. Donnermeyer says now.

Mr. Donnermeyer enrolled at Newport Catholic High School but transferred to Dayton High School because they had a football team. He played guard and tackle at 145 pounds, soaking wet.  The state of family finances required all available hands to pitch in, and Mr. Donnermeyer sold papers, had a paper route, and worked as a copy boy for The Kentucky/Cincinnati Post. He would be given a streetcar pass in the morning and he would run ads back and forth to merchants around town. He recalls riding both the Price Hill and Mt. Adams inclines.

The family’s entertainment was the radio. In the custom of the day the main Sunday meal was served around the noon hour, and afterward he and his siblings would lie on the kitchen floor and listen to it. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Mr. Donnermeyer heard a news bulletin that the Japanese Empire had attacked Pearl Harbor. 

About a year later, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at a war-bond sale in Fountain Square on December 11, 1942. He saw a good bit of the world during his years in World War II, or as much of it as you can from the deck of a destroyer. After spending three months in boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois, and additional time in radio school at Northwestern University, he was sent to learn German codes at a base in Casco Bay, Maine. Investigators interviewed acquaintances back home to evaluate his fitness to serve in such a delicate assignment. His group intercepted German communications to learn how their submarines operated.

In 1943 he was assigned to a destroyer escort. He helped protect ocean-going troop convoys in 14 separate Atlantic crossings. Asked if his ship had ever been fired upon, Mr. Donermeyer jokes, “Not that I know of,” but it was duty performed at the edge of mortality as German submarines swarmed the Atlantic.

He rose to become a third-class petty officer.  He was stationed at Norotin Heights, Connecticut, when the Navy brass told the sailors that the Japanese had surrendered. Mr. Donnermeyer put on his dress blues and made it to Times Square in New York to be on hand for the jubilant celebration of V-J Day and the official end of World War II – August 14, 1945.

Mr. Donnermeyer was released from active service in March, 1946, and joined the Naval Reserves. He came home, collected the credits he needed to finish high school, and in June, 1948, and married his high school sweetheart, Shirley. Soon the couple had three boys: Bill, Jr., Jim, and Tom.

Mr. Donnermeyer was a member of the first class to admit men at Villa Madonna College, but decided that there was a better future in becoming a union pipefitter and signed up for a five-year apprenticeship program. He was intent on building a career and raising a family, but the Korean conflict intervened. He was called up and served on the U.S.S. Walker off the coast of California, but was eventually granted an emergency discharge because of serious illness in both his and his wife’s family.

In 1952, the family bought a house in the 100 block of Ward Avenue in Bellevue. At the dawn of the Sixties, Mr. Donnermeyer began to develop a taste for politics. He served on Bellevue City Council for six years. Late in the decade the incumbent state representative in the 68th District had developed a reputation for being unresponsive to constituents’ queries, and Mr. Donnermeyer decided to make a run in 1969. By then, the family had moved to the upper end of Bonnie Leslie Avenue in what some in Bellevue call “The Hill,” and what one local wag calls “Faux Thomas.” Shirley passed in 1966 at age 39, and the surviving Donnermeyers had to collaborate to make life work at home and in politics.

One of his sons designed a brochure and Mr. Donnermeyer passed out copies in a door-to-door canvass of the district. In those days it included eight precincts in the well-heeled north end of Fort Thomas, hostile territory for a Democrat who grew up revering FDR. As he visited with voters in Fort Thomas, they would ask how he was registered. When he answered ‘Democratic,’ they tended to say something like, “Sorry, we’re Republican and we’re going to have to be for the other guy.”

“If the good Lord came down and was a Democrat, they wouldn’t have voted for him, either,” Mr. Donnermeyer told an interviewer for the Kentucky Oral History Project in 2006. He won by 216 votes, running strongly in both Bellevue and Dayton, both of which could claim as his home town.

With his even temperament, friendly demeanor, and experience in organizational discipline, Mr. Donnermeyer was tapped by Gov. Julian M. Carroll to serve as majority caucus chairman in the House in an era when governors dominated Kentucky legislative affairs.

“Julian Carroll knew what was going on all the time,” Mr. Donnermeyer recalls. No one ever questioned Gov. Carroll’s. After a day of committee meetings, the House daily session, and other matters in the press of business in a short legislative calendar, leadership would meet in the evening with Gov. Carroll at the Executive Mansion to assess the day’s events and plan what was to come the next. As caucus chairman, he presided at the majority party’s meetings almost every day.

Mr. Donnermeyer also served as chair of the Business Organizations and Professions Committee, which had jurisdiction over northern Kentucky’s important tourism and hospitality industries.  He was appointed to the board of the Northern Kentucky Convention & Visitors Bureau in the 1970s, where he continues to served to this very day.

Mr. Donnermeyer also was a member of the vitally-important Appropriations & Revenue Committee, where bills that cost money are put to rest or perhaps live for another day. 

As a member of leadership, Mr. Donnermeyer also served as a member of the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee clears bills for consideration on the House floor, or not. The considerations there include whether the measure can command support of a majority of the House, whether it squares with the aims of leadership, whether it might cause heartburn in the governor’s office, or whether it is constitutional. Many a member’s dream of legislative glory runs aground in the Rules Committee. If the General Assembly is the Boston Marathon, the Rules Committee can be Heartbreak Hill.

When a constitutional reform of the court system was approved in the mid-1970s, his influence obtained an extra judgeship for Campbell County, he mentions these days, almost as an afterthought.

Mr. Donnermeyer had firm positions on certain issues. He always opposed liberalizing Kentucky abortion law because Catholic doctrine he adheres to teaches that life begins at conception. But he was not an ideologue and his legislative service was characterized by a collaborative attitude necessary to see to the needs of diverse population in northern Kentucky. What had been Northern Kentucky State College based in a couple of buildings on a wind-swept hill in Highland Heights emerged into Northern Kentucky University, a full-fledged regional institution, in a period of time roughly coinciding with Mr. Donnermeyer’s time in Frankfort from 1970 to 1994. He worked well with the late Arthur L. Schmidt, Republican of Cold Spring, and counts him as one of his favorite colleagues

A union pipefitter all through his legislative terms and for 36 years all told, Mr. Donnermeyer took labor’s side, but he was not a politician who professed to love jobs but hate business. “Nothing wrong with profit,” he remarked to a reporter in the 1970s.

Mr. Donnermeyer was in fact a member of a class of politicians as extinct these days as carrier pigeons, small cokes, and coal cellars – one who worked at bipartisanship. Legislative redistricting drives partisan division. The making of the legislative map is when the majority leaves its mark on the minority, as good as it can. But in one redistricting debate, Mr. Donnermeyer came to Mr. Schmidt and asked for Crestview to be shifted to his district; his brother lived there, he explained. Mr. Schmidt said, in effect, you got it. The late Lawson Walker, a traditional Republican legislator from Kenton County, once drew Mr. Donnermeyer aside to tell that they had voted different exactly twice through an entire legislative session.

After almost 25 years in the House Mr. Donnermeyer calculated how much money it would take to defend his seat and how much time his work in Frankfort was taking him away from his family, and decided to let the voters give someone younger a chance. 

Mr. Donnermeyer’s son Jim passed in 2014. His sons Bill, Jr., and Tom survive, as does his daughter Theresa Faeth. His second wife Mary, whom he had married in 1970, passed in 2017.  He has been blessed with nine grandchildren and three great grand-daughters. Mr. Donnermeyer is lucid and he easily spins stories from his vast memory with little prompting. His eyesight is deteriorating, and at least one of his surviving sons visits him every day to help administer eye drops and help him through the Covid emergency.

He stays up on goings-on in Bellevue, and is always ready to serve as Bellevue’s elder statesman, although it might be noted that some of the counseled are themselves now elderly.

A poker game in which he’s been a player has become something of a Bellevue legend, but like almost all social gatherings has been put by the Covid emergency on hiatus.

Mr. Donnermeyer was born September 19, 1924, the year after Calvin Coolidge succeeded Warren Harding as president. Two months past his 96th birthday, he has been around for almost two-thirds of Bellevue’s time as a city.

-James Dady

Photos provided

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