Tom Weitzel remembers the first time he talked with Donald Doneske, the longtime former Riverside police chief who died June 13 at the age of 85. It was a personal interview in 1984 with Doneske in his office at the Riverside Police Department, the final step before being offered a job as a police officer.
Doneske’s office was filled with plants. While peppering Weitzel with questions about why he wanted to join the department, the police chief moved around the room watering the pots.
“He didn’t sit still the whole time,” said Weitzel, who would eventually become Riverside’s police chief himself, in 2007.
While Doneske’s preoccupation with his plants might have struck Weitzel as curious at the time, he later learned that Doneske was interested in nurturing not just greenery, but his police department.
“He wasn’t flashy,” Weitzel said. “But he didn’t need to be.”
During a 41-year tenure with the Riverside Police Department – to this day the longest-serving police employee the village has ever had – Doneske spent 21 years as chief of police, also a record for the village.
In his time as chief, from 1973 until his retirement in 1994, Doneske oversaw a host of initiatives that remain important parts of the department today.
“He was a little bit ahead of his time, in my opinion,” said Weitzel, who worked under Doneske’s supervision for the first decade of his career.
Joseph DiNatale, the last of five village presidents under whom Doneske served, said the former chief pushed for advanced training for his officers well before it was fashionable among suburban police departments.
Doneske urged his officers to attend classes at Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety, DiNatale said, and in 1991 went so far as to invite the chief of the Queen’s Constabulary in Norwich, England to train Riverside officers in the use of minimal force, among other things.
Riverside balked at paying for the hotel bill, so Doneske took a different approach, personally convincing DiNatale to put the Englishman up at his own home – for a month.
“He had such a charming personality,” DiNatale said of Doneske.
Weitzel called Doneske a “gentle soul,” who “never got excited, but in a good way.”
According to Weitzel, Doneske taught his officers that their leaders should be calm under pressure, and that an agitated leader would result in agitated junior officers.
“If you’re excited and overreacting, they’ll be overreacting,” said Weitzel. “In this job, people feed off you as chief.”
Doneske’s career highlights, enumerated in the program printed for his retirement party, included purchasing the first portable radios for officers in 1973, his first year as chief. Until that time, unless an officer was in a squad car, it was impossible to communicate with the dispatch center. In 1992, he directed the purchase of mobile data terminals in squad cars.
In 1975, he created the department’s evidence technician program and crime prevention unit. Later, he instituted the department’s first field training program for new officers and approved a tactical unit program for the investigations division, a precursor to a task force like WEDGE.
Doneske also negotiated the first police union contract on behalf of the village in 1988 and approved the creation of the Riverside Police Explorers program to foster an interest in law enforcement careers for teenagers.
He joined the Riverside Police Department on Nov. 23, 1953, was promoted to sergeant in 1969 and lieutenant in 1972. According to DiNatale, Doneske was mentored by Police Chief Donald Gosling, another forward-looking chief who in retirement would take over as chief of the Brookfield Zoo’s police force.
At the time of Gosling’s retirement, DiNatale was on the Riverside Police and Fire Commission. He said recommending Doneske as Gosling’s replacement was an easy decision.
“We wanted to have someone from within who knew the town inside and out,” DiNatale said. “There was no problem picking him.”
Born in Chicago on June 24, 1932, Doneske grew up in Stickney and lived in that village within less than a mile of where he grew up until his death. He attended Morton East High School in Cicero and then enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1949, serving as a military police officer stateside until 1952. He attained the rank of corporal.
On May 26, 1953, he married Carole Michalek and joined the Riverside police force six months later. The couple had four children, one of whom — their son Steven — died at the age of 4. He is survived by his daughters, Sandra Doneske, Robyn (Jim) Bassett and Judith (Ken) Raspberry. Carole Doneske preceded her husband in death in 1985.
Doneske’s love of tending to plants in his office was no accident. He was an avid gardener, said his daughter Robyn Bassett, particularly when it came to tomatoes.
“He handed out tomatoes to everyone in town,” Bassett said. “It was his thing.”
According to Bassett, Doneske’s relationship with his companion of 14 years, Martha Navarro, began with Doneske leaving tomatoes on her car outside of the Riverside restaurant where she worked. Navarro also survives Doneske.
Doneske didn’t talk much about his job at home, Bassett said.
“He was real low-key about his job,” she said. “He never brought the job home.”
Bassett said the family thought it would be appropriate to bury Doneske in his police chief’s uniform, but could not find it anywhere. As a last resort, they looked in a cabinet in the garage and, sure enough, they found a uniform.
Only it wasn’t Doneske’s. It was a British constable’s uniform, given to him as a gift by the Norwich chief constable.
Doneske’s funeral services, at his request, are private. He didn’t want the pomp and circumstance of a traditional police funeral, Bassett said.
“He never really wanted the light on him,” Basset said. “He was a down-to-earth guy.”
Doneske is also survived by four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
He will be buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Stickney, a half block from his home.
Memorial donations in Doneske’s name are appreciated to the Illinois Police Association Scholarship Fund, 7508 W. North Ave., Elmwood Park, 60707.
Arrangements were handled by The Original Kuratko Family Directors, Brian D. Kuratko and Ken Kuratko, directors.