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Donahoe’s News: A veritable general store on Central Avenue

-Submitted photo Bonnie Largent Barnett, of Fort Dodge, right, is pictured with the late Jack Hampton, during a trip to Ontario, Canada, in June of 2017.

Need an out-of-town newspaper? A magazine? A malted milk? A Hallmark card? A good cigar? A place to mail a letter? Or even a fish hook?

From the 1950s through the end of the ’60s, you didn’t need to look any further than Donahoe’s News – a fixture operated by Chuck Donahoe at the corner of 11th Street and Central Avenue back in the time when Central was bustling with businesses from 12th Street down to the City Square.

“The place was a veritable general store,” said Jim Tarbox, who worked there from 1965 to 1968 while attending St. Edmond High School. “Chuck carried tobacco products, personal products, boxed chocolates, hosted a soda fountain in the back at which I learned the vagaries of making – and difference between – a malted milk and a mere milk shake.

“The building to the south on 11th Street was home to the Greyhound bus station – it later housed a bistro named The Buzz Depot — and travelers would often come in for coffee (10 cents a cup, a nickel for a second, another dime for a third – back and forth the price meandered) or ice cream. There was a potpourri of knick-knacks – ping-pong balls, jacks, racy playing cards — crammed into a glass cabinet that surrounded his ‘office’ in one corner of the store, and I think he was at the time the town’s premier dealer of Hallmark cards. Chuck also hosted a remote postal station that was the envy of other greeting-card merchants and the salvation of anyone who missed the last mail pick-up at the Post Office.”

But the main draw of Donahoe’s was its vast selection of newspapers and magazines.

“My dad was a regular at Donahoe’s,” Tarbox said, “and we always had copies of The New Yorker with Chuck’s distinctive purple ‘D’ stamped on the back cover – as were all magazines sold there; part of his theft-deterrence program. Discounting my years delivering the Des Moines Register and Fort Dodge Messenger, during which time I likely set new standards for lousy service, it surely was at Donohoe’s that I developed an interest in the publishing biz, which I pursued for 40 years at both the St. Paul Pioneer Press and editing magazines in the Twin Cities. A surely incomplete roster of papers Chuck carried would include The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Minneapolis Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Chicago Tribune and Des Moines Register. The Sunday editions were particular customer favorites.”

Those who worked Sunday mornings had to be there by 7:30 when bundles of newspapers were strewn about the front entrance. They had to be counted and stacked in the front window by opening time at 8, at which time there already would be a handful of early-risers.

Another Donahoe’s part-timer who ended up going into the newspaper business was Ed Breen (nephew of Ed Breen, Fort Dodge radio and TV icon), who worked there from 1959 to 1961. In a sense, Donahoe’s was the catalyst for Breen’s lifelong career in newspapering that landed him a spot in the Indiana Newspaper Hall of Fame.

As Breen tells it: Bob Brown, longtime Messenger sports editor, was a Sunday morning regular at the store, dropping in to buy out-of-town papers.

“I courted him shamelessly for a job, and he was looking for a Friday/Saturday night sports part-timer to take high school call-ins.” Breen landed an interview and his first newspaper job at The Messenger.

Chuck Donahoe and his family “were the poster children for the Irish Catholic family,” Breen said. Chuck’s parents, James and Mayme (Jensen) Donahoe, raised four children: Chuck, James, Lucille and Thomas. Chuck died in 1999 at the age of 81. His sister Lucille died in 2015 at the age of 100. The last survivor of the family (none of the four children ever married) was Monsignor Thomas Donahoe, who died in November 2020 at 94. Much of his career was spent at Carroll Kuemper High School where he was superintendent from 1961 to 1975.

Chuck attended Corpus Christi Academy and Fort Dodge Junior College, playing football and basketball at both schools, and served in the Army Air Force during World War II, earning the Air Medal. Following his discharge, he worked as a sales representative for Williams and Hunting, a wood working industry in Cedar Rapids. He later purchased Couch News in Fort Dodge, which then became Donahoe News; he owned and operated it until retiring in 1969. His news stand was at 1101 Central Ave. – now the location for Harty’s Caddy Shack Cafe. Bob Nelson owned the newspaper and magazine distributorship in the basement, and the bus station was next door to the south.

Donahoe’s was open every day of the year except Christmas and New Year’s Day. Tarbox recalled: “One year the holidays fell on consecutive Sundays, and the hue and cry about not being able to get the newspapers was so persuasive that Chuck decided to be open on New Year’s Day, too.”

Breen tells a favorite story “about a couple of guys who hung out at the bus station who came in Donahoe’s twice a day — mid-morning and mid-afternoon — for their Bromo Seltzer fixes.” Breen said. “We sold it out of a dispenser at the soda fountain. Stuff was a lot like Alka-Seltzer, but addictive.”

Scores of Fort Dodge teenagers worked at Donahoe’s over the years, including Bonnie Kay (Largent) Barnett, for whom working at a news stand was in a way carrying on a family tradition when she went to work there part time at 17. Her father, Clyde Largent, worked in the press room of The Messenger and her grandfather, John Largent, was a printer at the newspaper.

“It was a jack-of-all-trades type of store,” she said. “You got all the news there, it was a newsstand and the whole town would come in there. We opened in the morning at 8, seven days a week. We had a subcontract Post Office, two aisles of Hallmark cards, all kinds of things – cigars and tobacco, a soda fountain with eight round seats.”

Barnett moved on to work for 50 years as a server and banquet waitress at Starlite Village, where she said she met five presidents and their wives, and is starting her eighth year as a server at the Triton Cafe on the campus of Iowa Central Community College, which she attended for two years after graduating from Fort Dodge Senior High in 1961 when the college – then Fort Dodge Community College – was housed in the east wing of the high school.

Al Alborn worked at Donahoe’s in the early 1960s, starting out as a window washer and working his way up to counter clerk and soda jerk. “If you stopped in for something at the fountain or bought a Sunday paper, I was probably behind the counter. Sodas were 25 cents. A dime tip was a big deal when you made 50 cents an hour.”

Working at Donahoe’s offered an ideal first “real” job, Tarbox said. “I learned a bit about how a small business operates, how to deal with (or ignore) surly customers, what stock rotation entails (off-loading stale candy bars, from my youthful perspective), why cigars cannot be allowed to dry out, and perhaps most important, personal money management.

“Chuck would pay us – me, anyway – in cash, carefully folded and stuffed into those little envelopes kids used to get for making their early offerings as the plate came around at church. My first payday amounted to something in the neighborhood of $23. That night I took a handful of friends to the Community Tap and spent the entire amount on pizza and sodas. I still have the friends, have happily made more than $11.50 a week in the interim, found my professional calling, and have fond memories of classmates ‘shagging the drag’ on spring afternoon and honking at me as they drove past the store while I stamped a purple ‘D’ on the backs of a wide variety of new magazines.”

Don’t forget the fish hooks,

Breen added: “We had one box and had to count the fish hooks every year on inventory day. I counted the first year and simply subtracted 2 annually in subsequent inventories.”

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