Home / Obituaries / Obituary: Donald Kilpela
Frank A. Douglass Insurance Agency

Obituary: Donald Kilpela

As received from the Erickson Crowley Peterson Funeral Home:

COPPER HARBOR – Captain Donald Robert Kilpela, of Copper Harbor, MI, died on October 15, 2020 at the age of 66 at Marquette General Hospital from the complications of a stroke. Donny was born October 21, 1953 in Coronado, CA, and grew up in Detroit. He graduated from Bentley High School, in Livonia, where he later attended Schoolcraft Community College. After moving to the Upper Peninsula he attended Michigan Tech University.

Donny was a natural athlete who excelled in many sports. He was a varsity tennis player in high school, and his bullet-like Frisbee throw called a “thumber” made him an All-American Guts Frisbee player in 1973. He was an exceptional golfer specializing in deadly putting and getting out of the woods of the Keweenaw Mountain Golf Course. For 25 years he ran the Black Fly Golf Open during the most virulent black flies in late May each year. 

Capt. Don began his career as a 17 year old deckhand on the passenger ferry Isle Royale Queen II in 1971 when his parents bought the ferry service from Copper Harbor to Isle Royale National Park. In 1975, he became a U.S. Merchant Marine Officer and served as a captain and partner in his parents’ firm until his death. He sailed the open waters of Lake Superior in all 49 seasons that the Isle Royale Ferry Service operated. Though he was a fun-loving eccentric, Capt. Don was a skilled and courageous mariner. He safely brought tens of thousands of people to and from Isle Royale during his years of service on the greatest and most dangerous of the Great Lakes. He faced some of the most challenging conditions Lake Superior can present to the mariner. It is a great sadness that Capt. Don never retired to receive his deserved recognition as one of Lake Superior’s greatest passenger ferry skippers. 

During his off-seasons, Donny discovered his talent for and creativity in drawing and painting. He published a daily cartoon strip about his witty gang of ecologically-minded friends, the Earthlinks. He then started painting abstracts that have attracted wide admiration. He was also widely known across the Copper Country as a humorous storyteller, an enthusiastic promoter of Copper Harbor and Isle Royale, and later a passionate thimbleberry picker. In December, with Copper Harbor’s exceptional snows, Donny launched and worked tirelessly on Copper Harbor’s annual tradition of a large display of Christmas lights across the village’s community park. 

Donny was single throughout his life. He is survived by his parents, Captain Donald and Elizabeth Kilpela of Copper Harbor, brothers Captain Ben (Marsha) of Mason and Copper Harbor, Captain John (Karma) of Calumet, sisters Susanne of Hancock, Jocelyn of Arvada, CO), and Lisa (Cormac) Ronan of Arvada, CO, his  dear aunt Helen Wisuri of Livonia, uncles James Kilpela of Wareham. MA and Stefan Szyszkowski of Golden, CO,  numerous beloved cousins, nieces, nephews, and his best friend and longtime companion Tammy Jo Cloutier of Copper Harbor. 

Donny was also survived by the tens of Copper Harbor residents who loved him, fought with him, worked with him, and were in turn loved by him because it was where he just wanted to be. 

If friends will wear a mask and try to keep some space, Betty and Don and their children would love to have you commiserate with them at an evening coffee social on Tuesday, October 27 at any time from 4 until 9 pm in the Siskiwit Reception Hall on Pine Street in Calumet.      

There will be a memoriam in Copper Harbor in the summer of 2021. Donations in Donny’s memory may be made to the Copper Harbor Improvement Association to fund the Christmas Lights.

Online condolences for the family may be left at www.ericksoncrowleypeterson.com

The Erickson Crowley Peterson Funeral Home in Calumet is assisting the family with the arrangements.

Check Also

Obituary: Margaret Lombardi

As received from Antila Funeral Service: Margaret “Marge” Lombardi, 93, a former South Range resident, …