His death was announced in a statement by Washington-based Gallaudet, which called him “an elder statesman of the Gallaudet and Deaf communities.” He had recently been hospitalized for a lung infection, said his daughter, Carol A. Padden, dean of social sciences at the University of California at San Diego.
Mr. Padden taught physical education classes for more than four decades at Gallaudet, the nation’s premier university for the deaf and hard of hearing. A former standout athlete and graduate of the school, he was known as the last surviving member of the Five Iron Men, a Gallaudet basketball squad that attained postseason glory in 1943 despite a last-place finish during the regular season.
For years, he welcomed young men to campus as the school’s “hygiene” instructor, charged with delivering a crash course in nutrition, wellness and sex education as part of a curriculum that aimed to offer an education in adulthood as well as the liberal arts. He also had stints as the men’s basketball coach and director of the intramural program, where he encouraged women to participate in sports long before Title IX banned sex discrimination in collegiate athletics.
But like certain professors scattered across the country, instructors whose names are little known outside of the campuses where they spend their days, Mr. Padden was admired less for any singular academic accomplishment than for the years he spent offering gentle advice and encouragement to those who crossed his path.
“What is remarkable about him is his total dedication to furthering the lot of the deaf of all ages,” the Gallaudet Tower Clock wrote in 1974, dedicating the school yearbook to Mr. Padden. “He does not concentrate on one level, nor does he confine education to the classroom. He has worked, and still works out of sheer heart, with small children, teenagers, college students and with the older crowd. No person who comes into contact with him is forgotten; he keeps track of them all, exhorts them on to bigger things, and takes pride in their accomplishments.”
“It is his character that strikes us the most,” the dedication continued. “He is truly one of us. He is involved in our activities, our events, our welfare. He has a genuine and deep-rooted concern for the students. His sense of humor is enormous, and when he laughs, all of him laughs. He is so human that one cannot fail to take notice of and admire this exceptional quality of his.”
Mr. Padden’s wife of 72 years, the former Agnes Minor, was a fellow Gallaudet graduate who taught English at the school. Together, they formed “one of the most recognizable and iconic couples in our history,” the university said in a statement.
But his influence extended well beyond Kendall Green, as Gallaudet’s campus is known.
Beginning in 1970 he helped organize the National Association of the Deaf’s Youth Leadership Camp, which was considered one of the first summer camps for the deaf when it opened in Pennsylvania the previous year. With co-founder Frank Turk, a childhood friend, he acquired a 32-acre plot near the northern Minnesota town of Pengilly, where high school students from across the country came to learn team-building and outdoor skills.
Mr. Padden spent nearly 20 years with the camp, and was credited with showing teens that they could thrive not only in the wilderness — where he taught them how to build a fire and use a compass — but in the world at large. The Youth Leadership Camp later moved to Oregon, and a 50th anniversary event last summer drew a wide-ranging group of alumni, who had gone on to thrive in industries that were once barred to deaf individuals like Mr. Padden.
“Anyone who’s ever achieved something as a deaf person,” Carol Padden said in an interview, “very likely went through this camp.”
Donald Alvin Padden was born in Chicago on June 26, 1921. Both his parents were deaf, and his father worked as a printer, a job that has traditionally been filled by deaf men at newspapers across the country — including at The Washington Post, where Donald Padden once operated a Linotype machine to supplement his family’s income.
His mother died when he was 6, and Donald was sent to live with an aunt in Minnesota, where he attended the Minnesota School for the Deaf, now the State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault. Mr. Padden excelled on the basketball team and, after graduating in 1940, entered what was then known as Gallaudet College.
His basketball career undoubtedly peaked in 1943, when he and his team won the Mason-Dixon Conference tournament despite posting a 4-11 regular season record and playing as the last of eight seeds. Mr. Padden and his starting teammates became known as the Five Iron Men because they played every minute of every postseason game, stunning top-seeded Randolph-Macon College before beating American University and finally the University of Delaware, 42-40, to seize Gallaudet’s last conference title.
Mr. Padden joined the Gallaudet faculty soon after graduating in 1945. He later received a master’s degree in physical education from the University of Maryland, after writing a thesis on balance, orientation and spinal meningitis. His daughter said that he conducted experiments in which deaf men were blindfolded and then told to jump into the pool, where they found it unexpectedly difficult to find their way to the surface.
Because of damage to their inner ear, some of his subjects were “immune” to motion sickness and went on to participate in early NASA experiments for human spaceflight. Mr. Padden might have been interested in participating in such research himself, were it not for accessibility barriers and sheer prejudice. “If he had been born later he might have been a scientist,” Carol Padden said, “but he never had an opportunity. At the time, people had very low expectations [of the deaf].”
Mr. Padden retired from the Gallaudet faculty in 1987. He was inducted into the university’s athletics hall of fame in 1995, and the school’s gymnasium floor was named in his honor in 2017. He went on to maintain an active lifestyle well into his 90s, using a rotary lawn mower for exercise in lieu of a gas-powered cutter.
His wife died in October. In addition to his daughter, of Del Mar, Calif., survivors include a son, Robert Padden of Frederick, Md.; and three granddaughters.
Mr. Padden was fond of an old proverb: “Because we are all on the same ship, we will all either sail or sink together.” “He really cared about other people more than himself, and their success more than himself,” said Turk, the Youth Leadership Camp organizer. Recalling the students that Mr. Padden had once addressed around the campfire, he added, “Those kids were twice or three times more successful than they ever would have been without him.”
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