AARP AARP States Iowa

Donna Hay - AARP Iowa Hidden Gem

Donna in studio.jpg
Girl Sailer.jpg
Donna as a child in 1936.


Donna Hay spent a lifetime caring for kids and doing for others. But as her ninth decade neared, hobbies like gardening grew harder as did driving.  Still, she wasn’t about to sit home with her feet up.  She picked up a brush and taught herself to paint.

“I call her Grandma Moses,” says long-time friend Marge Sexton of Altoona. “She has a unique talent and artistry.”

Grandma Moses had nothing on Donna, age-wise. Moses got serious with painting at 78, while Donna, 91, took her first lesson at 88 at her local library.  She was hooked and decided she could teach herself with help from the Internet. She figures she‘s watched more than 75 online classes hosted by teachers such as Bob Ross of public television fame and Angela Anderson.

Paints.Brushes.jpg
Donna's favorite supplies

Donna’s Mitchellville kitchen doubles as her studio. Canvasses share space at the table with meals and her Bible study group.  A rolling painting cart sits close by, brimming with brushes and a rainbow of acrylic paints. Until the pandemic, she also hosted painting lessons for neighbor kids, friends and family. 

Landscapes and nature are among her favorites to paint, and her first large Bob Ross canvass reminds her of her native Minnesota’s north woods. Finished works often appear for sale on her Facebook page or promoted through word-of-mouth. “You can only have so many in your house, you know,” says practical Donna. And you can’t beat her prices, which basically just cover supply costs.

Donna’s always enjoyed crafting, but in earlier days she had little time for leisurely painting. Born and raised in Owatonna, Minn., she graduated from a Missouri business college and then joined Bankers Life in Des Moines. There, she met future husband Jim Hay on a blind date. After marriage, the couple moved to his hometown of Mitchellville where together they raised four daughters.

Daycare Article.jpg
Clip of newspaper story announcing sale of her daycare.

In the early ‘60s while raising her girls and with just one family car, Donna looked for a way to continue working.  What began as neighborly babysitting soon turned into Smallfry Playschool, her licensed childcare business. First from the Hay basement and then from the basement of another house bought across the street, Donna devoted more than 30 years to sharing hugs, singing songs (not always on key, she admits) and writing lesson plans to ready her little ones for kindergarten.  More than 500 children passed through her doors at Smallfry, and Donna made it point to welcome any child, including many with special needs.

When she sold the business at 62, she went to work part-time at two local childcare centers until finally retiring at 85.

“I just love kids,” she says. “They have so much fun and are always anxious to learn.”  And while she knew childcare wouldn’t make her rich, sharing her days with children more than made up for it.

Everybody else, oh they can hardly wait to get out and do things. And of course, I’m happily sitting here painting away.
Donna Hay

Friend Marge and daughter Nancy Hanna say Donna enjoys people of all ages. Nancy even claims her mother has a better social life than she’s ever had. “My life philosophy is to be kind to other people and do good for others,” explains Donna. No surprise then that she’s often quietly collecting donations here or delivering home-cooked meals there, says Marge.  And when Donna stopped driving last year, she gave away her car to a local family in need.

Donna’s faith serves as an important touchstone in her life and shapes her art as well. “To me, my painting comes from God. He guides my hand,” she says. She feels blessed to still be active and engaged despite serious health challenges like cancer and two joint replacements.

As her 92nd birthday nears in April, Donna waves aside questions about her secrets for a long life. Nancy, though, credits her mother’s strong faith and overall zest for living, “ and I hope to be just like her when I’m 80, let alone at 91.

Meditteranean.jpg
Donna dipping her toes in the Mediterranean Sea, 1973.

Staying active includes a passion for travel. Seeing how others live broadens perspective, she thinks, and makes you appreciate life.  She’d be exploring somewhere right now if it weren’t for COVID.  Past adventures introduced her to Hawaii, South America, Russia, Portugal, Africa and, just last year, Belize. Israel had long been on her bucket list, so when a church group sponsored a trip a few years ago, she signed on before consulting her worried daughters. Donna informed them she’d taken care of all details, and she meant all: “I’ve already called the insurance company, and they’ll send my body home if I die,” she remembers saying.

Donna’s painting became a perfect cure for the boredom of quarantining this past year. “Everybody else, oh they can hardly wait to get out and do things. And of course, I’m happily sitting here painting away,” she says.

Kids Snowman.jpg
Neighbor children in their first painting class with Donna.

Lately, her painting table’s been busy with commissioned works. Customers ask her to transform a snapshot of a beloved home, church or even one-room schoolhouse into canvas keepsakes. And she just tackled her first Zoom class on portrait painting. Faces are tricky, she confesses.  

A new creation might start with a sketch on the canvass. But if the finished work isn’t to her liking, she’ll start over. “I developed a patience working with kids,” she says, and recites a famous Bob Ross quote,  “There are no mistakes, just happy accidents.”

Ross’ The Joy of Painting” show ended in 1994, a year before he died. Thanks to technology, his mild-mannered lessons live on virtually along with fresher sources for lessons. Technology in general keeps Donna connected.  She regularly texts with friends and family, and a few years ago took a deep dive online into her family’s Scandinavian ancestry.  Donna realizes some of her generation might be wary of technology. Her advice: turn to a family member, as she does, or a trusted friend if you get stumped by a tech problem.

As her 92nd birthday nears in April, Donna waves aside questions about her secrets for a long life. Nancy, though, credits her mother’s strong faith and overall zest for living, “ and I hope to be just like her when I’m 80, let alone at 91.”

Thinking of taking up painting yourself? Donna recommends:

  • Find an instructor you enjoy. Two online possibilities are Bob Ross or Angela Anderson.
  • Paint everyday to keep improving your skills.
  • Keep painting supplies nearby, ready to use when you’re ready to create.

Next Month:
When his boss overheard him singing, this Hidden Gem soon found himself the lead singer for an Iowa City area blues band. But while music started as a side gig, it grew to be his life’s passion and eventually led to a successful solo blues career. Still, it would take almost thirty years before he became an “overnight sensation” at the Memphis International Blues Challenge. COVID’s put touring on hold, but it surely hasn’t stopped this 52-year-old’s creativity. 

Contact information and more from your state office. Learn what we are doing to champion social change and help you live your best life.