Each year since 1999, the Donovan family and friends from all around the country have gathered on the shores of Pend Oreille Lake — and jumped in. Then, escorted — and sometimes assisted — by others in kayaks and boats, they swim to Warren Island, a mile south of the entry point at the “wall beach” in Hope, Idaho. They do this to honor the life and memory of Johnny Donovan, who with his sister Mary, was raised at Hope. Johnny died at age 49 of a heart attack in 1995, and four years later, Mary decided to find a way to commemorate his life.
The swim which began as a family remembrance has grown now into an annual event that attracts dozens of folks, many of whom mark the event by donating money to a favorite charity or cause. Among the beneficiaries of this have been the volunteer fire department and the local search and rescue team. This year, Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness was added to the list. In honor of Johnny, FSPW received $350.00 from five contributors who participated in the swim on July 31.
“We’re pleased and grateful,” says FSPW program coordinator Sandy Compton. “It’s great to be recognized by such a good group, first of all, and the money comes at a great time. We have a matching grant from the Cinnabar Foundation, so the donations from the memorial swim plus the match equal $700.”
Johnny’s niece, Meg Seward, an English major at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, shares a fine essay about Johnny and how the swim began, written when she was a freshman in 2006.
Perhaps nothing is more tragic than an untimely death in a family. If not for the perseverance of my family, my Uncle Johnny’s death, like countless others, might have remained nothing more than a tragedy forever. Johnny’s 1995 fatal heart attack at age 49 came as a shock to the whole family. I was only six when he died, but what stands out in my mind about him is his energetic personality. My most distinct memory is skiing with him at Schweitzer Mountain in Northern Idaho. I was standing in front of the ski lift that led to the mountain summit. He came up behind me, playfully tapped his ski pole on my helmet and eagerly asked, “Are you ready to do some black diamond runs at the top?” Thinking about this makes me wish that I had known him better because I’m always up for an adventure. Maybe I got that from his side of the family.
For the next few years, Johnny’s death hovered over my family; he was the only son and much loved. The pall began to lift in 1999 when my mother decided we needed to celebrate his life rather than merely mourn the loss. That is how the idea for the annual Johnny Donovan Memorial Swim came about. The plan was to swim from “The Wall” beach on Lake Pend Oreille to a small island a mile away. My family’s roots at the lake go back to pioneer Irish immigrants in the 1800s, and Johnny and my mother were raised there. The swim had special significance because my uncle and mother used to do it as children. Each member of my large, extended Irish Catholic family collaborated to make it a successful event. My mother did the planning. My sister and I designed t-shirts. My aunt made a giant banner for all the swimmers and hangers-on to sign. My cousins made the carbo-load dinner the night before and the huckleberry pancake breakfast the morning after the swim. Others in the family manned the small flotilla of canoes and kayaks that rescued, or more often towed, those who were over-taxed. The first swim in 1999 was a hit with my family, and nearly twenty people participated.
Now, seven years later, the swim is a beloved annual family tradition. Summer would not be the same without it. The first year, only a select few family members participated. By last year, we had swimmers from all over the country, including Massachusetts, and locals from all over the Northwest. We never could have imagined that our little family swim would become the popular annual event it is today. Each year, we raise hundreds of dollars for the local volunteer fire department and Search and Rescue. The fire department recently hung a plaque honoring the swim next to its new fire truck in its new fire station. The money for charity is important, but, for my family, the best part is the time we can share and appreciate together and the chance to swap happy memories about Johnny’s always fast-paced life of flying, sky-diving and whatever other adventure passed his way. Despite his death, the swim has given me and others the opportunity to appreciate the man we hardly knew or, in some cases, didn’t know at all and create new memories for new generations.