MADISON — Surgeon, Vietnam War veteran, naturalist, environmentalist, humanitarian, educator, friend and family man – that was Don Rankin.
“He knew everybody,” said Christine Koster, president of Friends of Hammonasset. “Everybody liked him.”
“He was super smart, he could make anybody laugh, he was a jokester,” she added. “He was definitely a unique guy and there’s not many people who were or are like him.”
Rankin died on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. He was 80 years old.
“He didn’t appear to be his age or look his age or move around like his age,” said Koster.
Westbrook’s Gary Nolf, a friend who collaborated on many projects with Rankin, talks about his commitment to his family, including his wife, Nancy and his granddaughters, Gigi and Sophie.
“He worshipped his granddaughters,” he said. “He talked about them all the time. Nan was his rock. She supported him 100 percent.”
Ranger Russ Miller, known as Ranger Russ, director of the Meigs Point Nature Center at Hammonasset Beach State Park, was in awe of Rankin’s boundless energy.
“He had so much energy,” said his friend. “When he first started getting sick the thing that he talked to me about was - he’s doing these treatments that would drain most people and he’s out all day doing all of these things and he would tell me, ‘I did this and this and this and you know what, I had to take a nap at 4:30 in the afternoon. Who takes a nap at 4:30?’
“He was so beside himself,” Ranger Russ remembered. “He had this entire list of things that he had already done that day and now he needed to take a nap and that really bothered him.”
Community involvement was a cornerstone of his life. This included work with Friends of Hammonasset, Habitat for Humanity, Bushy Hill Nature Center, A Place Called Hope and St. Andrews Episcopal Church, to name a few.
“That list of community organizations that he worked with, it didn’t have a limit, and he connected all those people together and had them work together for larger projects. So, he was all about making connections,” said Ranger Russ.
He added that Rankin had a passion and enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge.
“Our biggest connection, between the two of us was the education part of it,” said Ranger Russ, choking up as he spoke.
“He liked to talk about geology and the formation of the universe,” he said. “We would talk about Native Americans and the history of Hammonasset, which was sort of a passion of his, and it would always end up going back to the Big Bang and the creation of the universe and he would start there.”
When Rankin got up in front of a live audience, Ranger Russ said, he was a captivating speaker.
“He would get up in front of a group of people and just say, ‘Oh, this is so fantastic. This is so amazing. You guys are going to be so excited to learn about this,’ and then start talking about rocks and things most people would just put them to sleep,” his friend recalled.
“With his energy and enthusiasm everybody was on the edge of their seat before he even started talking,” he said. “It was incredible to see and it was genuine.”
Rankin used this energy to raise more than $1 million through the annual Christmas tree, plant and mum sales for the Friends of Hammonasset over 20 years.
Of this, $500,000 was earmarked for the educational exhibits at the new Meigs Point Nature Center.
Starting in 2000, Rankin tirelessly worked on the plant sale.
“I think the most we ever raised, in one plant sale, was over $50,000,” Ranger Russ remembered.
“It started out very small, him just cutting trees and bringing them down to the park and selling them,” he said. “Before long we were buying 500 trees.”
Ranger Russ said Rankin totally immersed himself in this project.
“I always joked that he needed a watch,” he said. “The Christmas tree sale would end at about 4 o’clock and it gets dark in the winter.
“I would drive back after work and he would be standing out there with a flashlight, shining it on a tree for somebody who couldn’t make it on time,” he said.
It was no unheard of for Rankin to deliver the trees. That kind of selflessness was evident when he donated all the leftover plants to the Madison Little League.
“Little League used them to plant in the Jaycee Field, we’re talking probably 16 years ago,” remembered Madison Chamber of Commerce Executive Director and friend Eileen Banisch.
“He’s just very generous,” she said. “He would deliver them. He just had a very generous spirit.”
Eileen Banisch’s husband and former First Selectman, Tom Banisch, echoes this sentiment.
“Don is the nicest guy you would want to meet,” said Tom Banisch. “Funny and very self-deprecating. He was kind of the guy who would joke about himself as much as you would joke with him.”
Rankin loved to talk and by all accounts he had a lot to talk about.
“Don would stop by my office probably once a month, to talk about something that was going on in town or just to say ‘hi’” Eileen Banisch said. “I would tease him because he’d talk for so long and I’d say, ‘Don, we’ve already killed 45 minutes, I’ve got to get back to work.’
“Then he’d leave and then he’d pop back and say, ‘One more thing’ or ‘Can I have one more minute of your time?’ she said.
Now, she said, she wishes she had “one more minute” with him.
Tom Banisch remembers Rankin’s gift of gab in his time as first selectman.
“We used to kid him because he would come in to talk,” Tom Banisch recalled. “We’d say, ‘OK, you’ve got 10 minutes’ and he’d say, ‘I promise, I’ll only use 10 minutes’ and 20 minutes later we’d still be talking.”
“He loved to talk and he was so much fun, so funny,” he added. “He had a great sense of humor. You never minded when he went on too long.”
“We’ll miss him because he was such an addition to this town,” said Tom Banisch. “In so many ways.”
Nolf worked with Rankin to start the Connecticut Archeology Road Show, travelling the state doing presentations. The duo also started the archeology club at Madison’s Daniel Hand High School and Westbrook High School.
“Don was a real people person,” Nolf said. “He loved talking to people. He listened to people and he remembered everything anyone ever said to him. He had the most amazing memory that I’ve ever seen.”
Ranger Russ said in addition to all his community contributions he was a true friend and family man.
“Everybody that knew him knew that they could count on him, if needed,” he said. “So, that’s part of his legacy, too.”