The Alderson family experienced tragedy long before Saturday, Oct. 6.
But when it struck nearly 20 years ago, they had a rock to lean on in Donald T. Alderson — someone able to defuse the moment with his dry sense of humor, steadfastly decide a direction, then get his hands dirty working to rebuild.
Unfortunately, his quiet, steady influence will not physically be here this time.
Alderson, 71, died Saturday morning as the result of a knife attack on a trail in Bellingham’s Puget neighborhood. It was the culmination of a string of escalating violence that left two other victims injured from assaults and the community reeling from the apparent randomness of the attacks.
Bellingham Police arrested Jesse Rene Reyes, 33, the man they suspect was responsible for the crimes shortly afterward. He was charged Tuesday in Whatcom County Superior Court and is being held on $1 million bond.
Perhaps the community that now mourns Alderson can draw inspiration from his own words on tragedy. He told The Bellingham Herald in November of 1999: “I certainly take less for granted. If nothing else, it’s a lesson anything can happen.”
‘There’s no way to ever erase that memory’
“Anything” certainly did happen on June 10, 1999, when gasoline vapors from a pipeline ignited a series of explosions that raced through Whatcom Falls Park and down Whatcom Creek. The explosions claimed the lives of three youths and created a fireball that destroyed Alderson’s home of 20 years on Valencia Street.
Fortunately, Alderson was able to escape while cradling his dog Chester. He raced to a neighbor’s before watching the creek-side home he loved and many of his possessions — some of which, including the furniture, he had crafted with his own hands — burn.
Alderson “wasn’t attached to the material things that burned.” But the sentimental thing that he missed most was a certificate of completion for a bungee jump, according to Mayrus Helberg, Alderson’s girlfriend of 21 years. She and other friends and family members spoke to The Bellingham Herald this week.
“There’s no way to ever erase that memory,” Alderson said in 1999. “That reminder is always there. How could it not be? But I don’t want to see this thing take this property away from me.”
The fact that many of the trees on his property — trees that he held a deep love for — were scorched in the fire didn’t help ease those memories, nor did the fact that the fire forced him to cancel a trip to California for the high school graduation of his oldest daughter, Kelli Dizmang, 38.
“I went back there, and I remember the property had totally changed,” his youngest daughter, Nicola Alderson, 35, said. “He was able to save a lot of things, but so much was damaged — wooden toys and things that he made for us when we were little. But I know he loved it there and he wanted to stay.”
It took months of wrestling with the city before Don Alderson received the necessary permits, but he finally got to rebuild the house — 30 feet further away from Whatcom Creek than the original, but with its front door facing the creek.
“The new house is beautiful — lots of wood and some great windows upstairs, some tree poles holding up the roof, a big front porch,” Helberg said. “He just put a heater out on the porch so he could sit there on cold mornings and drink coffee.”
‘I didn’t know anybody that didn’t like Don’
Don Alderson lived to enjoy simple pleasures, such as drinking coffee on the front porch while watching the waters of Whatcom Creek babble by, family and friends said.
He was born in Bellingham, graduated from Bellingham High in 1965 and shortly afterward went to work for the city of Bellingham’s Public Works department. Lifelong friend Clayton Larsen said Don Alderson spent approximately 40 years working for the water department.
“He did a little bit of everything with the water department,” Larsen said. “He did underground utility location, and he was really good at that.”
Terry Fahlstrom, a friend for more than 50 years who also worked alongside him for the city, said Don Alderson’s sense of humor was a good fit with co-workers, and he would often get in the middle of light-hearted disagreements.
“He was a caring person and had a good, dry sense of humor,” Fahlstrom said. “He always made me laugh. He liked to help people with lesser experience on a crew — teach them what he knew to make the entire crew better.”
Alderson also enjoyed practical jokes, such as the time he put a “Garage Sale” sign in a friend’s front yard so people would line up early on a Saturday morning.
“He had a funny way of telling people things,” Larsen said. “If you didn’t know him, you might not get it, and what he said usually had two meanings. A lot of times I’d break out laughing after he left or the next day while I was driving home. ... I didn’t know anybody that didn’t like Don, and that’s hard to say.”
And there were few people Don Alderson didn’t like.
“He always liked to get to know unexpected things about people,” Dizmang said. “He’d find a person sitting by themselves and have a conversation with them. He always used to meet random people, and that was a cool thing. ... People enjoyed talking to him, because he was interested in their story.”
‘I just remember the smile he had on his face’
But the people Don Alderson enjoyed being around most were his family — his two daughters, Helberg and his two grandchildren, Charlie, 7, and Ellyse, 5.
“He loved his daughters, and he loved his grandbabies,” Helberg said. “He was a great grandpa.”
Dizmang said the talented craftsman made toys and wall hangings out of wood and other materials for her children, as he did for his daughters when they were young.
“He built us an amazing dollhouse, once,” said Nicola Alderson, who lives in California. “He was so talented with his creativity and being handy. If he thought my sister or I were into something, he’d build it for us.”
But Don Alderson also enjoyed spending quality time with his daughters and now his grandchildren. Dizmang said she remembers looking out in the yard once and seeing her father and two children running through a sprinkler and turning it into a game.
“I just remember the smile he had on his face and the smile that was on their faces,” said Dizmang, who now lives in Camas. “He turned into a child. I think my kids and I have come up here every year — we have a cabin in Blaine. A lot of the things we’ve exposed our kids to are because they’re things my dad did with me. They’re special memories. Just different parks and things like that he used to take me to, now my kids love those places.”
He and Helberg have traveled to a number of countries, including Argentina, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and a number of different locations in Europe. He also loved to visit Alaska, where he took delight in trying to set a new personal record for lowest temperature.
“He always used to say, ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing,’” Helberg said. “That’s how I think of him.”
When he stayed close to home and wasn’t in his workshop, you could often find Don Alderson on his bike. Dizmang said though she remembers him running a bit when she was younger, his knees started to bother him, so he decided to take up cycling and never stopped.
Most days he pedaled to Ferndale just to get breakfast. He rode the North Cascades Highway at least once and last month powered up to Artist Point in the Mount Baker Hill Climb.
“I think he was proud that he made it to the top,” Helberg said. “He wouldn’t say it, but I knew he was.”
Nicola Alderson said her father also was into researching things and getting the newest technology, such as Amazon’s Alexa. He also was into skiing and played golf regularly with a group of friends that included Fahlstrom at Lake Padden.
“He was young at heart,” Helberg said. “Nobody knew how old he was, and he had this tremendous sense of humor that people loved to be around.”
All of which, unfortunately, will be missed by those who knew and loved him.
“I’m still trying to process this whole thing,” Fahlstrom said. “At first I wasn’t up to talking about it, but I thought it might help with the healing. Don would appreciate I’m doing it for him and his family.”
Don Alderson memorial
When: 10 a.m. Oct. 20
Where: Squalicum Boat House, Zuanich Point Park, Bellingham