There was value in the attempt to write a thorough portrait of a life, Mr. Donaldson concluded, but no biographer could produce a work “so splendid and comprehensive, so valid and insightful, so attuned to the past, in harmony with the present, and anticipatory of the future as to merit the term ‘definitive.’”
John Scott Donaldson — he dropped “John” while still a young man — was born on Nov. 11, 1928, in Minneapolis to Frank and Ruth Chase Donaldson. His father invented an air filter to protect tractor engines and went on to found the Donaldson Company, which became an international concern.
Scott attended the Blake School in Minneapolis. As a teenager he was a nationally ranked tennis player in the 15-and-younger group; he continued to enjoy the sport for more than 60 years, giving it up only when he tore a calf muscle at age 80.
Mr. Donaldson was an English major at Yale University, graduating in 1950, and earned a master’s degree in English at the University of Minnesota in 1953. Then, with the Korean War near its end, he enlisted in the Army Security Agency, an intelligence branch, where he was trained as a Morse code intercept operator.
“I wasn’t very good at the work, which consisted largely of copying five-letter code groups from barely audible radio signals,” he wrote in “The Impossible Craft.” “It did teach me for the first time how to use a typewriter, the one good thing that came out of my military experience.”
During the Christmas holidays in 1953 he married Winifred MarieAnn Davis. Seven months later she was killed in an automobile accident.
He was later stationed in Kyoto, Japan, and made a stab at a writing career. “I sent a fact piece to The New Yorker,” he recalled in “The Impossible Craft,” “about the life of an enlisted man in the Orient — ‘Letter From Japan,’ I pretentiously called it — and am still waiting for acknowledgment of its receipt.”