Robert Carlin "Buckwheat" Donahue Jr.

August 16, 1951 – October 14, 2019

 

October 17, 2019

Skagway's Buckwheat Donahue, a man friend Jeff Brady called "larger than all of us in size and spirit" died Monday in Oklahoma of heart failure. He was 68.

The former Skagway tourism director was a friend to Haines and a longtime supporter of KHNS as well as a board member and underwriter, and the rare person who was a legend in his own time throughout Southeast Alaska.

In 1987 he founded the Buckwheat Ski Classic as a "way to get more women to come to Skagway in the winter," he said. It drew many men as well and has grown to host around 400 cross-country skiers annually. He also co-founded the Dyea to Dawson Centennial Race to the Klondike, which evolved into the annual Yukon River Quest, and was on Sport Yukon's organizing committee for the Klondike Road Relay, and its official starter in Skagway for 20 years. Each race began with his famous howl.

"It's easy to see why a guy who is an endurance athlete would promote these events, but Buckwheat wasn't, and famously so for a lot of years, he was big guy, and yet he was so generous and supportive to those of us who were," Chip Lende said. "I think that's part of the reason why everyone loved him so much. He made the events fun and ran them well for the competitors."


Donahue also was a founder and organizer of the Skagway marathon and the North Words Writers Symposium.

His volunteerism helped land him the job of Skagway tourism director in 1999. He retired in 2015. He tried a few other events which didn't stick, like a fall Paranormal Festival.

He received the Denali Award from the Alaska Tourism Industry Association in 2010, but was prouder of organizing a Guinness World Record Egg Toss in Skagway on July 4, 2008, with 1,162 tossers. The record still stands.

He loved the outdoors and was an avid hiker and paddler. He co-founded the outfitter Packer Expeditions and paddled many Yukon rivers with friends.

In the middle of his tourism job tenure, he took a sabbatical to raise money for Skagway's Dahl Memorial Clinic, with an ambitious journey by foot and paddle across North America. He was diabetic and had suffered a heart attack about a year prior to the trip. He had stopped smoking and rarely drank any more, and wanted to get healthy as well as do more good.

He began Oct. 1, 2005 in Miami, Florida and on September 8, 2006 he walked into Skagway. The newspaper stopped production, the school let out early, traffic halted on a busy summer day, and all the children howled and followed him down Broadway to the AB Hall. After more than 4,600 miles of walking and 2,000 paddling, he was home. His shoes were bronzed and hung in the entryway of the new clinic building, for which he raised nearly $75,000.


Buckwheat was born Robert Carlin Donahue Jr. on August 16, 1951 in Oklahoma City. He grew up in Denver and graduated from St. John's Military School in Kansas. He studied history at Western State College and the University of Colorado. He worked for independent oil companies and eventually owned Buckwheat Oil and Gas, based in Denver.

About 1984, Buckwheat and a friend decided to come up to Alaska. After a wild night at the bar in Sitka, he boarded a ferry for Juneau but fell asleep and missed his stop. Two women talked him into coming to Skagway with them. A year later he bought a home and stayed for good. Initially he played Frank Reid and other roles in the Days of '98 Show at the Eagles, and then got a job as a gold-panning balladeer at Liarsville Gold Camp. It helped that he looked a little like Santa Claus, had a hearty laugh, a soft heart, and old-world charm. It was there that he started reciting Robert Service poetry, and became so good that he eventually created his own show, "Buckwheat At Your Service." He also produced two CDs of Service poems and Jack London stories.

His larger than life persona landed him on several Alaska-themed TV programs and he spent a week driving Martha Stewart around Alaska and the Yukon in an RV for one of her shows. The unlikely pair became fast friends. He also toured western states reciting Klondike verses while opening for John McEuen, founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Delbert McClinton.


Privately, Donahue considered himself a thoughtful appreciator of literature and art, who was in love with both Skagway and the wilderness around it.

He is survived by his sister, a niece, grandnephew, and several cousins.

Family and friends will host a series of memorials in the future.

 
 

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