Don Travis’ legacy centered on strong vocational, academic curriculum at Churchill County High
As an educator and father, Don Travis Sr., allowed people to be their own innovators, whether it was within the four walls of a school or at the family home on Wade Lane. That philosophy over the years also made Travis a leader from the time he was an upperclassman at Churchill County High School to a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he served as the college’s student body president and finally back to Fallon where he became a respected, popular educator and community member.
Carol Travis Lister, the family’s oldest daughter, said her father’s lessons first extended to his four children and then to others.
“As I look back now, one of the things I appreciated the most about my dad was the freedom he gave all of us to try new things and to make mistakes in the process,” Lister said.
A flashback returned Lister to her 16th birthday when she was learning how to drive. She was backing out the car, but she took out a fence and caused at least $1,000 in damages to the back of the station wagon. She didn’t know what she was going to say to her father when he returned home, but the thoughts of re-paying for the damage raced through her mind, wondering if her future babysitting money would pay for car repairs and what it would be like to be grounded until she was 30 years old.
When her father returned home, Lister burst into tears, but he looked at her and replied calmly, “It looks like you took the fence out too.” He paid the repair bills for both the fence and car and did not ground Lister, who said she learned her lesson from the incident.
“He left me with some dignity when I probably didn’t deserve it,” she said.
This approach to life is what most people remember about Travis, who died on Dec. 21 at the age of 89 after a short illness. He served as a teacher and later high-school principal, a position he held for 21 years before retiring in 1989. Travis built the vocational program as a teacher, and as an administrator, he wanted both strong vocational and educational courses for the high school, which, at the time, numbered fewer than 900 students.
FREEDOM TO LEARN
“The freedom he gave people to learn, try new things, take risks and make mistakes wasn’t just given to his four children — it was extended to our friends and other students in the high school and the church,” Lister said. “If someone showed an interest in some new field or skill he was right there with them encouraging, and if possible, enabling them to succeed in whatever they were trying.”
Craig Travis, the youngest, said his father was old school.
“You made a deal, you kept the deal,” he said. “He was pretty kind-hearted. He wanted a good deal, but he didn’t take advantage of anyone else.”
Craig said his father had many ideas or thoughts as a parent and educator. He pointed out teachers may not have agreed with Don Sr. but they respected him.
Many years ago as a teenager, Craig learned more about his father and where he grew up as a child before moving to Fallon with his family in the late 1930s. Near Riverside, Calif., in San Bernardino County, Craig said they drove to his grandparents’ original house and even saw the original tree his father had described to his children.
“It was a good trip,” Craig said. “We took the Oldsmobile Tornado, and I drove most of the way.”
Other trips with the entire family resonate with both Craig and Don Jr., the second oldest. The family traveled to Disneyland with other families or went white water rafting on the Truckee River. Don Jr. said his father, who liked to farm, also tried ice skating on a pond nearby their home and enjoyed horseback riding.
“We went riding one day, and one got away,” said Don Jr., referring to an incident with a horse that occurred when he was 10 years old.
Don Travis also learned from others and at an early age, he took an interest in agriculture, thus leading to him becoming a national FFA vice-president during his senior year in high school. Simmie Cooper Travis, who married Don in 1957, said he spent the summer in England learning about the country’s farms and production and advising his hosts how American farms operate. When Don returned to Fallon, she said he worked on the family farm for more than three years before he decided to continue his education and matriculate at the University of Nevada, 60 miles west in Reno.
As a student, Don became involved in a myriad of activities, pledging the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and joining the Aggies Club and Young Democrats and becoming involved with agriculture-related classes. Former Nevada governor and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, a classmate and fraternity brother of Don, said ATO had many members from Fallon including Harry Heck, Sam Beeghley and George Nelson — to name a few.
“He had both feet on the ground, and he was very active with the Aggies,” Bryan said, recalling their college days.
In 1955, Don became the ATO’s pledge class president for one year. He served as homecoming chairman, which included Wolves Frolic, a special event presenting many fraternity and sorority skits, and the parade. Not only was he involved with his university classes, but Bryan said Don also began dating Simmie, who was introduced to him by the sister of a Fallon friend. They married in 1957, the same year she graduated, but Don had one more year of studies and university involvement remaining. He was elected the ASUN (Associated Students of the University of Nevada president for his senior year.
“We put up a write-in campaign for Don and he won,” Bryan said, chuckling.
Bryan said Don represented the best who came to the university from rural Nevada. He described students from the areas outside of Reno and Las Vegas as having a work ethic and bond. The friendship with Bryan and his late wife Bonnie continued throughout the years. As an elected official, he attended many events in Fallon and always rode in the Labor Day parade.
Every time he saw Don and Simmie, Bryan said he always knew his fraternity brother was smitten with his college sweetheart.
“This was a love match made in heaven,” Bryan said. “It was obvious how he felt about her.”
Another fraternity brother, Harry Heck of Fallon, said Don was a very patient, understanding man, a trait that extended from their college days to Fallon.
“If a bad situation arose that could have negative consequences, he would, without hesitation, begin to find an acceptable solution,” Heck said. He would work at smoothing over the situation in a rather laid-back mellow manner.”
Once Don graduated, he and Simmie received job offers from the Churchill County School District where she continued her career as an English teacher. When Don was working toward his degree, she taught at Sparks High School.
After they arrived in Fallon in 1958, Don first taught at the junior high school, which was at Oats Park, and then the high school where he instructed science, math and vocational ag classes along with advising FFA. Simmie taught speech, freshman and junior English and physical education. As a young man in Fallon, Simmie said Don also served on the county commission and other boards. Other than family, no one knew Don better than Mayor Ken Tedford, who was a very young ring bearer at Don and Simmie’s wedding.
“My mom and dad were very close to them,” Tedford remembered.
Over the years, Tedford said Don was a friend and a mentor, and they talked periodically about issues. Tedford, though, said it was Don’s desire as a principal to bring in strong teachers to the vocational program and to expand the offerings in agriculture, carpentry, auto mechanics, business, drafting and photography. The students taking those classes, Tedford said, became outstanding businessmen and stalwart members of the community.
Personally, Tedford and his siblings knew the four Travis children, and both families belonged to the same church.
STRONG COURSE OFFERINGS
Retired agriculture education teacher Jim Sustacha considered the vocational program the top one in the state. During the 1970s and 80s, Sustacha said Don hired the best teachers for the vocational classes. Sustacha said there wasn’t a weakness.
“Don gave tremendous support for vocational education,” Sustacha pointed out. “That was his area and what he truly believed in. In fact, Don had a vision to start an equipment training program. He got me, and we made it work.”
To honor Travis’s vision with his support of vocational education, the school district honored the educator in 2006 by naming the building that now houses the career and technical classes as the Donald R. Travis Vocational Complex.
While the vocational program grew, so did academics. Sustacha said Travis wanted the academic courses beefed up and added Advanced Placement classes to the curriculum. Within a span of five years, AP courses in math, science and English were added to the course offerings.
Ron Flores was a counselor at the high school before becoming assistant superintendent, principal at West End Elementary School and then superintendent before retiring in 2003. Flores noted Don stressed strong academics but also wanted a strong vocational program to ensure students had a solid educational background. As a result of strong programs, Flores said many students went to a trade school after graduation. Flores also learned from Don.
“I think of Don as a teacher, mentor, colleague and most of all, friend,” said Flores, who now lives in Henderson. “In my four years at the high school as a counselor, Don taught me valuable lessons and numerous experiences. He encouraged me to pursuit innovative counseling programs.”
Flores, though, admired Don’s demeanor … his calmness.
“I can count on one hand when I saw Don upset,” Flores said. “That helped me at the central office. I had to become a good listener — listen to people and hear what they had to say.”
When he moved to the district office, Flores said he enjoyed working with Don who presented good ideas but readily listened to other viewpoints.
“He would sit there (in a meeting) and offer suggestions that were invaluable,” Flores added.
Both Flores and Travis also prided themselves on hiring teachers who wanted to become longtime members of the community. Many of them, said Flores, spent their entire careers in Fallon and reared their children here.
Jim Dakin was one of two vice principals at the high school before Don retired. The other was the late Lou Buckmaster. Dakin said Don was always calm and low key regardless of the situation.
“Yet there was never a doubt that he was in charge,” Dakin recalled. “When my job called for me to supervise a student project such as the student graduation committee, he let me do the job without micro managing. It was reassuring that he was supportive and had confidence in me.”
Because of Don’s calm confident demeanor, Dakin said Don was approachable for most of the staff, and many of the teachers and support personnel, as well as the students, felt comfortable talking to him.
Retired assistant superintendent Gary Imelli first knew Don as a teacher and later as an administrator. They both served as principals at the same time with Imelli at the helm of the junior high school.
“We worked together a lot and started the administrators’ association,” Imelli recounted. “We worked together hiring teachers and on the administrators’ association and contracts.”
Simmie also taught for Imelli for a number of years before a reconfiguration of grades switched the ninth grade to the high-school campus.
Imelli said Don was a hands-on principal who walked the halls greeting the students, and he visited the classrooms to say hello to both the teachers and their students.
LIFE’S CHANGING DIRECTION
Retirement was productive for Don until he suffered a stroke during the spring of 2002. Tedford said admired Don’s tenacity and determination after he suffered the debilitating stroke.
“That stroke changed everything in his life,” Tedford said, pausing.
With the help of family and friends, Don rehabilitated to overcome many of the stroke’s effects. Don Jr., who graduated from UNR in 1981 and worked for CC Communications for 28 years, said his father slurred his words for a time, and he couldn’t smile “across his face.” He said his father’s attitude remained strong and never got him down. On the farm, Don relied on help from others to help him climbed onto the farm equipment.
Don Jr.’s daughter, Katie Sitler, described the first time Don met his first grandson, Jec.
“Great Grandpa met my son when he was in the twilight of his life, the deep wintertime of old age, with a body used up with the experiences of life,” Sitler said. “By this time Great Grandpa was in a wheelchair and had several health issues, any one of which could have made him a grumpy old man. But it didn’t. I never knew a time when he didn’t have a smile and a kind word for each of us grandkids.”
Heck said the final years of his friend’s life showed the determination Don had. Not even a stroke could withdraw him from society.
“He accepted his condition with great patience and worked at remaining a functioning member of his family and community,” Heck said.
During a major portion of 2020, Heck said Don’s final months must have been excruciating. Being partially paralyzed and with a crippled foot, Heck said his longtime friend was placed in an assisted living facility, but visitor restrictions were implemented because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Then COVID hit and for months he couldn’t feel the comforting touch of his wife, sons and daughters,” Heck lamented. “It had to be a tough struggle for such a hard-working, caring and sociable soul.”
Yet, Heck knows Don will be remembered for what he did for Churchill County schools and on his farm.
“He was a man with a strong work ethic,” Heck said, “willing to put in a long day’s labor and being sure he did more than his share.”