Don Danborn, a working-class Chicago kid who parlayed an appointment to the newly formed United States Air Force Academy into a long life as a provider for his family and his community, has finally failed to cheat death. He was 84.
Danborn died July 4 after a brief stay at Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge. His children in the area kept vigil over him, and he passed immediately after his youngest daughter told a nurse, “He knows we’ll miss him, and he knows he has our permission to go.”
A second-generation Chicagoan, whose father worked as an engraver (and once joined the circus) and whose mother was a Rosie the Riveter, Danborn grew up as an only child with the lessons of the Depression and of wartime close at hand.
A born orator who always knew his audience, Danborn co-opted a Pabst Blue Ribbon slogan to get himself elected student body president at Proviso High School, where he tutored future Green Bay Packers star Ray Nitschke in math. In 1957, Danborn’s good grades and a third-hand connection to the local congressman got him a recommendation for a spot at the academy, which hadn’t yet been built. When another guy dropped out, Cadet Danborn was in.
During his freshman year, when cadets still lived, trained and studied at Lowry Air Force Base, Danborn snagged the phone number of an Irish Catholic girl from North Denver after a mixer between cadets and the young ladies from Loretto Heights College. He and Margaret “Peggy” Grace wed five years later and were married for 58 years, until her death in 2021. He happily deferred to her in nearly all matters regarding their household, which would grow to include five kids who in turn gave them seven grandchildren.
As they built their family, he built his 27-year career as a fighter pilot, tallying more than 100 sorties over Southeast Asia in an F-4 fighter-bomber and achieving commendations including Top Gun and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He loved to fly, to warble off-color Air Force ditties and to recount the hijinks he and his fellow pilots pulled off, but he rarely discussed his combat exploits – perhaps in part because he knew that some didn’t come back. Unflinchingly confident but unerringly humble, the retired “full chicken colonel” kept most of his service awards, ribbons and medals boxed up in the basement.
The family moved back to Denver, where Danborn traded in his Air Force blues for a delivery driver’s cap, just as proud to be a second-generation Teamster – prouder still when his first-born son became a third-generation one – as he was of his military service. Trucking liquor for a wholesaler through the back doors of mom-and-pop restaurants across the state, he took note of which ones treated their staff well and frequented those joints for decades after. A man of many hats and uniforms, Danborn climbed back into the cockpit for a 12-year run with United Airlines, then drove a bus for his last paying gig, surely the only Air Force colonel and airline captain putting on a pair of brown RTD shorts.
For him, there was no more dissonance in that series of occupations than there was in his glee at banging out a bit of doggerel on his typewriter despite his ability to recite classical poetry from memory; or his tight grip on a nickel around the house alongside his deep generosity with his time and money; or the value he placed on being educated and well-read while, just for the double entendre of it, hanging his master’s diploma in the master bathroom. He was – and preferred – the salt of the Earth.
When he finally retired for good, Danborn stayed exceptionally active – riding a tandem bike with Peggy before caring for her when her health failed; road-tripping across the country to visit family and old friends; attending his grandkids’ events; and volunteering, especially reading, singing, counting offerings and working funerals at Shrine of St. Anne Catholic Church in Arvada, a touchstone for him and Peggy in the second half of their lives.
Danborn dodged surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft fire. He broke his ribs when a “communist tree” jumped in front of him on a ski slope. He survived a low-altitude ejection from a cockpit that left him dangling in a tree, his back broken. And he actually died once previously, ever so briefly, just before major heart surgery this year, then was recovering so well that the cardiac and rehab staff marveled. A man of deep faith, he never feared death, and died feeling like he’d had more than his fair share of a good, long life.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donation to Arvada Community Table, 8555 W. 57th Ave., COTABLE.org.