On the Road with USGlass

Donn with Two Ns, Adieu

Updated October 11, see note at bottom.

Much more than mention must be made of the loss of Donn Harter on October 5. Donn passed away in his 94th year, near where he was born, by the Tuolumne River in California. If you ever met Donn, even briefly, you already know he is unforgettable. If you have never had the pleasure, let me tell you about him, and I am sure he will be memorable to you, too.

Donn Harter

I worked with him for over a decade at the National Glass Association (then called the National Glass Dealers Association) in Washington, D.C. Donn was my glass industry dad. He never minded if I called him with questions. He spent hours on the phone explaining code groups (in those days, there were three) and their language to me. He was my technical teacher, as well. It would light up my day if he gave me a compliment and he made my week if he asked me—a lowly 20-year-old—for my opinion.

He was also one of the most unique individuals I ever met, and I loved him for it.

We were at an association board dinner in the mid-1980s when the group’s counsel read a poem he had written in his honor called “Donn with the two Ns.” That stuck with me, though almost everyone called him “Harter,” which befit the larger-than-life status he deserved.

Donn was a consummate strategist who constantly planned for growth in whatever arena he was involved. You never knew if that constant twinkle in his eye was skepticism or mischief. I think it was both. And while the two Ns in Donn’s name might signal an Irish heritage, I never asked, though Donn told stories as good as any Irish seanchaí. And he didn’t just run a story around the block before he brought it home; he took it up to the moon. But he always returned to earth and landed it with a good point, humorous punchline, or moral at the end.

Donn grew up in a primitive cabin in Fish Camp, Calif., that didn’t have plumbing and didn’t get electricity until he was 16. Not long after that, he went to work as a logger, though he felt he wasn’t suited for it. So, when the opportunity arose to work in his new father-in-law’s glass company, he took it. They worked together for several years before he opened his own company.

Hal’s Glass of Bellflower, Calif., remains a family-owned institution to this day. It was ahead of its time in many ways. It featured a designer-ready showroom before they were popular. Hal’s has been run for the past few decades by one of Donn’s daughters, Karen Colacino, who became president before it was uncommon to see a woman—let alone a “daughter of” rather than a “son of” running a business.

Donn leaves a legacy in the glass industry as a whole. I believe his work—his crusade—to ban wired glass in the U.S.  has saved countless lives and thousands of injuries. He took this mission on when wired glass was widely used here. It was an issue of safety for him. He had a fair amount of pressure, both positive and negative, placed on him to drop the matter. But he did not. He dug in. He campaigned, crusaded, lobbied and legislated until the results he wanted finally came to be. Today, all our customers are much safer because of his efforts.

“He is tireless, formidable and determined,” said former association president Jim Ponder, who made a presentation to him in 2014. “He is also one of the most forceful advocates for industry safety in existence.”

His other industry passion was organizing the glass industry. He worked to increase the association’s numbers by holding town hall organizational meetings nationwide. He talked to other shop owners as a shop owner. One night, in front of a particularly disinterested crowd, he slowly began to remove his clothing, one piece at a time, as he was talking. By the end, not only was his jacket and tie gone, but his shirt was almost off, his shoes and socks were gone, and his pants were rolled up. When we asked him why he was channeling Gypsy Rose Lee, he said, “Well, I needed them to pay attention, and by the end, they couldn’t take their eyes off me.”

Donn Harter plays cameraman as an undefined NGDA staffer yells “surprise” at my office bridal shower in July 1982.

His industry passion, though, was the California glass industry. He founded the California Glass Association (CGA) in its first incarnation, which expanded into the Western Glass Association and then America’s Glass Association. He developed many safety-related publications and the popular Bug-It tools that became an impetus for the code-mandated bugs you see today.

Donn was also an example of how to keep loving and living life, no matter what. He had his share of adversity. He lost his wife, Helen, unexpectedly in 1990 and his son, Tim, an avalanche victim, in New Mexico in 1996. A fire in 2013 devastated his boyhood home in Fish Camp, but, as he told a local newspaper then, he could still enjoy the memories.

“Donn was a true force of nature,” said his cousin Fred Harter of Royal Glass. “There were three ways something could be,” Fred said with a chuckle, “Donn’s way, Harter’s way or his way, and all three of them were always right. I am going to miss him tremendously.”

We all are.

Note: Don’s daughter Karen Colacino has let us know that the family is planning a celebration of his life at his mountain home in the Spring of 2024. Anyone wishing to reach the family may do so by writing to the Harter Family at 7573 Forest Drive, Fish Camp, CA 93623.