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Obituary: Donald Ward King

1 January 2020 No Comment

Donald Ward King, age 87, passed away peacefully in his sleep Sunday, November 17, 2019, in Madison, South Dakota, with family at his side. He was diagnosed a few weeks before with acute myeloid leukemia.

Don was born during the Great Depression on July 18, 1932, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, one of five sons born to James Arnold King and Mary Elizabeth (Ward) King.

Don’s father went to work for the US Department of Agriculture as a statistician for the Agricultural Statistics Board (now the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS)), moving the family to Iowa, where Don spent much of his childhood. His father and brothers were avid hunters and often traveled to South Dakota for the pheasant hunting season. Don had many happy memories of these hunting expeditions and always spoke glowingly of the beautiful South Dakota plains and big skies. His family frequently returned to Wyoming for family gatherings and vacations.

Don contracted polio as a child while his family was living in Ames, Iowa. He was admitted to a Sister Kenny hospital clinic in Des Moines, Iowa, for treatment. Sister Kenny clinics used what was, at the time, a controversial and revolutionary approach to polio treatment, opting for hot packs and gentle movement of paralyzed limbs instead of the splints, braces, and iron lungs in general use at the time for treating the disease. Don responded well to the Sister Kenny treatment and, after some months, was able to return home with little residual effect. He went on to become an accomplished four-sport athlete in high school and a two-sport athlete (basketball and track) in college, as well as a highly skilled jet pilot and flying instructor.

Don enrolled at the University of Wyoming to begin his undergraduate degree but took a break after two years to enlist in the Marines and become a pilot. For the Marines, Don flew the WWII Hellcat planes, but he wanted to fly the more powerful Navy jets. He became highly skilled and accomplished flying Grumman F9F-5 and F3D jets on and off Navy aircraft carriers stationed in the ocean. He was scheduled to be deployed to Korea when one of the many truces took effect and the Navy assigned him instead as a flight instructor and relocated him to Beeville, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico.

As a flight trainer, Don ended up with the nickname “Santa Claus” because trainees considered it a gift to get him as their instructor. Soon, the Navy was sending Don all those students who were having difficulty obtaining the high level of skills needed for aircraft carrier piloting. Many later credited Don’s patience, unflappable calmness, and positive approach during their training as the key to becoming able to serve their country as accomplished Navy, and often later commercial airline, pilots.

Don was recognized as such a skillful pilot that he was recruited for a precision flight team to fly in air shows, where multiple jets flew in impressively close formations, swooping and darting through the sky in highly choreographed sequences requiring remarkable skill and focus. After discharge from active duty, Don served in the Marine Air Reserves for two years flying the F9F-6 and F9F-6 Cougar. Overall, Don logged almost 2,000 hours of flying time.

After his military service, Don returned to the University of Wyoming, completing his BS in 1959 and his MS in 1960, both in statistics. Following his academic work, he was tapped by one of his professors, Ed Bryant, along with another master’s student, Jim Daley, to co-found Western Statistics, Inc., eventually known as Westat, Inc. Westat became and is still today one of the world’s leading private-sector statistical survey research organizations. The corporation is a half-billion-dollar operation with more than 2,000 employees in nine regional US offices and six countries overseas, with three additional subsidiary companies.

After Westat, Inc. was acquired, Don served as a high-level executive in a series of connected companies, eventually leaving to start his own company, King Research, Inc. His company achieved prominence for information systems evaluations and return-on-investment studies, especially of federal and state government and nonprofit organizations, including public libraries and statewide library systems. In 1992, Don retired from the business world to concentrate on writing, lecturing, and service, working extensively pro bono with Carol Tenopir from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

In 2016, the University of Wyoming bestowed on Don an honorary doctoral degree, noting his contributions as a world-renowned statistician and information science pioneer. As they stated, “Through his career, he has led ground-breaking research studies with results that have transformed both the quantitative measures, models, and evaluation methods used in information science and informatics as well as the practices of the organizations that benefited from the results of those studies. Long before ‘big data’ was even a theoretical concept, King was leading international, national, state, and local studies on the economic analysis of information systems for government organizations as well as for business and industry. He is recognized for having established the definitions and parameters of return-on-investment and economies-of-scale potentials of resources, costs, and materials flows for scientific as well as public and corporate information systems. This included pioneering work in the pricing of information systems and the costs and benefits of US copyright and intellectual property law.”

Don was recognized with a long list of additional awards during his lifetime, including the Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Wyoming, Career Achievement Award, from the Association of Research Libraries; D-Lib Magazine as one of the most-cited authors in its publications; “Pioneer of Science Information” from the Chemical Heritage Foundation; Honorary Fellow from the National Federation of Abstracting and Information Services; Special Recognition from the Special Libraries Association; Distinguished Lecturer by the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST); and the Watson-Davis Award, Research Award, and Award of Merit (the society’s highest honor) from the American Society for Information Science and Technology. Don’s work continues to be the underpinning for large portions of 21st century information science and analytics research and application, as the concepts and conclusions he documented have proven to be both prophetic and foundational for the Information Age.

Don was preceded in death by his infant daughter, Amy, and his first wife, Martha (Thompson) King.

Don is survived by his wife, José-Marie Griffiths, and six daughters and their families: Lisa Hopper; Kelly Loudermilk; Sara (Tim) Born; Mary (Hal) Quayle; Erin (Sean) O’Donovan; Rhiannon; 14 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Don requested that his ashes be distributed at sea, in recognition of the honor he had serving his country in the US Marines and Navy. The family is hoping to coordinate this with the activities of the USS South Dakota (SSN-790), a nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarine in service with the United States Navy. Don, Griffiths, and their daughter, Rhiannon, attended the official commissioning of the submarine earlier this year in Connecticut.

Memories and tributes to Don can be posted at the Ellsworth Funeral Home or Don’s memorial website.

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