Harold Donohue: A Remembrance

Harold Donohue, a longtime Tribeca resident, political activist and former president of the Independence Plaza Tenants Association, passed away recently in Mt. Sinai Hospital. I was a friend of Harold, having met him in 1988 when we were both serving on Community Board 1. I got to know him well and, over the decades, I grew very fond of him. 

Harold described himself with a smile as a  “political hack,” by which he simply meant an activist working diligently, and at times single-mindedly, on local causes in which he believed. He was involved in tenant issues and was a past president of the Independence Plaza Tenants Association.

In an official capacity, Harold was on the staff of the late Assemblyman William Passanante for many years. I know that he could be a tough opponent on issues and not everyone got to experience the charming, delightful, and mischievous side of his personality. Along the way, he certainly made some enemies.

I am sure that few Tribeca residents know what an interesting and complex person Harold was. 

In his forties, Harold earned his PhD in Comparative Literature from New York University, writing his dissertation on the imagery in the writings of the poet Lucretius. He was fluent in Latin and ancient Greek. For a conference on classical languages he once printed up t-shirts that said, in Latin, “The only good language is a dead language,” but I’m pretty sure that never became a profitable enterprise. He taught literature at The City University of New York's Medgar Evers College.

Harold had been working on a paper—an obscure scholarly paper, I imagine—about the relationship between a particular style of medieval English verse and the structure of blues lyrics. I was looking forward to pretending to read it and telling him how good it was. He was also a poet who would from time to time read one of his poems at a poetry group in the Village.

Harold was a passionate amateur historian of blues and jazz with a prodigious knowledge of the music and a scholar’s robust memory for details. I was often astonished at his depth of knowledge. He loved to tell amusing anecdotes about musicians, both major and minor, their lives, and their performances at NYC jazz clubs in the heyday. He could tell you who played each instrument and who was sitting in for someone who was out with a cold or hangover. A few years ago I mentioned to Harold that I’d love to learn more about jazz and he kindly and enthusiastically sent me a series of detailed emails with a wealth of information. I treasure those notes and as one of the ways I want to honor his life I plan to listen to some of the performances he wrote about with such passion.

Once, in 1988, when I was a candidate for the school board in District 2, Harold was helping me petition for signatures in front of IPN.  At one point, he turned to me and said, “Did you ever meet Sonny Rollins?” I said, “No, why?”  He said, “Well, he’s about to sign your petition.”  And I looked up to see Mr. Rollins (then a resident of IPN) approaching to greet Harold and Harold asking one of the greatest jazz saxophonists in the history of jazz to sign, which he did. Harold had a twinkle in his eye the whole time because he knew I would be in awe.

In the 1990’s Harold moved to Malawi in southern Africa and lived there for a year to experience the continent and country and people.  

Five years ago my wife and I moved out of New York City but I was pleased to be able to meet with Harold for breakfast at Gee Whiz on each visit to NYC. Tribeca, and New York City, have lost a richly complex, interesting neighbor with the passing of Harold Donohue.