A 'Neighborly Friendship': Remembering Mad River Valley Resident Don Alter
In the last year of the pandemic, Vermont has lost more than 200 people to COVID-19. Those people were our family members, our friends, and our neighbors.
Early in 2021, VPR reporters began reaching out to family members of Vermonters who died after contracting COVID-19. This is the fifth in a series of stories about their lives and what they left behind. Watch VPR.org for three more stories throughout the week. Find stories and memories of those lost from their loved ones, here.
Cathy Pratt lives on Airport Road in Fayston, in the Mad River Valley. Donald Gene Alter lived across the road from her for the past 20 years.
“We had like the typical, lovely, neighbor experience,” she recalled. “You know, ‘Hey, I’m in Burlington, I might not have unplugged my coffee maker, could you go check?’ The I-gotta-get-my-snow-tires rides, ‘Hey I’m at Costco, what can I pick up for you?’”
"[Neighbors are] not your family but then you realize they kind of are, even more so." - Cathy Pratt
Especially in Vermont’s small towns, neighbors depend on each other. Whether an acquaintance or a friend, they’re the people who come over during power outages and help look for the dog when she runs off.
Cathy and Don used to go for walks together down the dirt road. Occasionally they’d watch movies. Once, he took her on a motorcycle ride. He was kind to her son.
“So it was pretty intimate that way,” she said. “We didn't hang out socially really, we went to a few gatherings with him but we didn't — we weren’t social friends like that.”
Alix Klein and her sister, Devin Klein Corrigan, weren’t related to Don, either, but they loved him too. He was their dad’s best friend. Alix can still picture the two of them together.
“Donny would usually have a denim flat shirt and a leather vest; he used to ride Harleys a lot so he always had that slight Harley look to him,” she said. “My dad was probably sitting in a pink polo shirt, both of them probably with like a margarita, hanging out, watching the sun set.”
Don was a classic Mad River Valley guy. He loved sunshine and reggae. He’d been in the military and had worked in photography. He was into both eastern spirituality and Harley-Davidsons. His house in Fayston was full of plants.
He was tall, with broad shoulders, long arms and legs. He had a moustache and a deep voice that he used to make people laugh, said Devin.
“He was at every family holiday. He was at every single one of my birthdays from the time I was 14. He missed the last two ... He was absolutely an integral part of what my experience of community and family was, growing up here,” she said.
Don was ill in the last several months of his life. Then, last spring, he got COVID-19. He grew sicker and sicker. Devin called him weekly, even when he was hardly able to respond. She remembers yelling into the phone, “It’s Devin, I love you. And at one point he said, ‘Oh, Devy, I love you too.’”
That was their last conversation. Don Alter died on April 12, 2020. He was 81.
Don’s neighbor, Cathy Pratt, watched the ambulance pull away the last time Don left his house. After she found out he wouldn’t be coming back, she told Don’s brother, who lives in Virginia, that she could clean out the house. She and her son spent the summer and part of the fall across the street, putting Don’s belongings in boxes. For Cathy, cleaning out Don’s house was a way of saying goodbye to her neighbor of 20 years.
“[Neighbors are] not your family but then you realize they kind of are, even more so,” she said.
Alix Klein got some of Don’s houseplants; an aloe, a jade and a Christmas cactus. Her sister Devin has a ring Don gave her. She never takes it off.
Cathy said she’s never had a neighborly friendship like the one she had with Don. New neighbors moved into his house last month, and hopefully, she said, it will happen again.
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