Garrett Park resident reflects on more than half century in town

McLaughlin enjoys life at age 98

Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2005

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Charlie Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Garrett Park’s oldest resident, 98-year-old Donal McLaughlin poses for a portrait inside his home. In the 55 years McLaughlin has lived in town, he has gotten the porcupine to become the town’s unofficial mascot and gotten the Latin words ‘‘vox clamantis in deserto” onto the masthead of the town’s newsletter, The Bugle.

Donal McLaughlin gets a kick out of how people treat him.

‘‘I’d say the response I get from just being active — people think I’m some kind of inspiration,” he said.

Indeed he is. McLaughlin is mostly known in history books and encyclopedias as the man who designed the United Nation’s emblem. But McLaughlin, 98, is also believed to be the oldest citizen in Garrett Park — a small town of about 900 residents known for its quirky charm.

He has lived there since 1950 in a house he designed and built.

And over the years, McLaughlin has seen lots of changes in Garrett Park, including the remodeling of Penn Place — the historic building that serves as the town ‘‘center” where people go to check mail, meet with friends and eat at the restaurant inside.

McLaughlin helped get the porcupine as the unofficial mascot of Garrett Park and was responsible for getting the Latin masthead — vox clamantis in deserto — onto the town newsletter, The Bugle.

‘‘I thought it would be a good idea if we had some sort of slogan,” he said. ‘‘Like the New York Times had ‘All the news that’s fit to print.’”

Although McLaughlin had the idea to put words on the masthead, it was Garrett Park resident and former mayor — from 1948 to 1950 — Clyde Hall who came up with the words, which mean ‘‘a voice crying in the wilderness.”

In the early 1950s, Garrett Park was mostly land with few houses, McLaughlin said.

As for the porcupine, McLaughlin said he got his inspiration from the 18th century American Revolutionary war flag known as the Gadsden flag that has a snake on its front with the words ‘‘Don’t Tread on Me” underneath.

‘‘I thought, what animal could we put that would [fit the expression], ‘Don’t tread on me?’ I thought of the porcupine.”

These days McLaughlin still keeps active in town.

Once a month he meets with friends for lunch at Penn Place.

Garrett Park Mayor Carolyn Shawaker, who sees McLaughlin when he comes to Penn Place for the lunches, called him ‘‘utterly charming.”

‘‘He’s just an extraordinary man,” Shawaker said.

At 98, McLaughlin knows he won’t be around forever, but said he is at peace with his age.

‘‘The grim reaper is not far off and I hate the idea of having to leave you all, but I look back and see all the great minds that have gone before us have had to face death,” he said.

McLaughlin has lived with a caretaker, Susan Alexander since 1999, a year after his wife of 63 years, Laura Nevius, died.

He is a native New Yorker and an architect by trade — he designed the famous Fifth Avenue jewelry store Tiffany’s in 1939 — but he took a job in Washington, D.C., shortly after World War II.

During the war, he worked as the chief of graphics with the U.S. government’s Office of Strategic Services, a now defunct intelligence unit.

‘‘They wanted a pin for the [U.N.] delegates [to wear] and I designed a pin. Much to my pleasure, they adopted it as the U.N. symbol,” McLaughlin said. ‘‘The irony is I wanted to be an architect because your designs would be frozen like music, standing in time. Of course, buildings are torn down but the symbol is all over the place.”

McLaughlin will always be known for his contribution to the United Nations, but his friends and family remember him for a different reason.

‘‘He’s a pretty amazing person,” said his son Brian, 62, of Takoma Park. ‘‘He’s real sociable and he’s fun to be around.”

Garrett Park resident David Almy, who has known McLaughlin since 1957, agreed.

‘‘He certainly has got the kind of personality where he has utter confidence in himself. He’s not afraid to make a fool of himself,” Almy said. ‘‘He was a mentor of mine. [And now] it’s particularly interesting that we don’t see anything together eye to eye but we get along famously.”

What Almy is talking about is politics, a subject that McLaughlin has never been one to shy away from.

Last year, during the presidential election, then-97-year-old McLaughlin could be seen at the Penn Place, handing out homemade signs he’d created in support of presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry.

More recently, McLaughlin sent an editorial to the New York Times criticizing President George W. Bush for what McLaughlin calls a ‘‘debacle” in Iraq.

‘‘He’s a real fixture in Garrett Park,” Almy said. ‘‘Even when he takes a position on something people don’t agree with, I just can’t imagine anyone not liking him.

‘‘He keeps himself active. He participates. He was even a submitter to the World Trade Center remodeling,” Almy said. ‘‘For anyone to be so active at his age is remarkable.”