Wong, Rockwell Elementary 'beloved' staff member, dies

A sign and messages honoring Don Wong at Norman Rockwell Elementary School.  - Photo courtesy of Angie Bindon Ballas/Facebook
A sign and messages honoring Don Wong at Norman Rockwell Elementary School.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Angie Bindon Ballas/Facebook

Don Wong felt he had the best job in the world.

He was a dedicated physical education teacher who thrived on watching his students shine.

The 61-year-old sports fanatic — who played rugby until he was 52 — also approved of his instructor’s uniform at Norman Rockwell Elementary School, said his sister Ann Cohen.

“He got to wear T-shirts and shorts all year round,” she said. “His kids were all of his students. He loved them. He wanted all his kids to excel, and he motivated them. We spoke to him about retiring, and he said, ‘What, are you crazy? What am I going to do? This isn’t a job, it’s my passion.’”

Wong passed away on Monday, Rockwell Principal Kirsten McArdle said.

“Rockwell lost a beloved staff member this week,” she added.

Wong taught at Rockwell since 2000 and was a Lake Washington School District instructor since 1976. The Seattle resident since 1975 died of heart failure, said Cohen, who lives in Portland, Ore., where Don was born and raised. He never married or had any children.

School officials have set up a memorial space at Rockwell in the covered area and they invite students, past students and families to add their thoughts to the space.

Wong earned his degree in education and master’s in physical education from Oregon State University, and earned a juris doctorate from the American College of Law.

His mother never let him play football because she felt it was too rough, Cohen said, but Wong gravitated toward the rugby pitch in college and played all over the United States, in New Zealand and in London.

“People used to call him ‘grandpa’ and say they were going to knock his teeth out,” Cohen said of Wong’s veteran status on rugby teams.

During one rugby match in San Diego, Calif., Wong’s mother sat on the sideline and took in the game. At one point, Wong got knocked about in the scrum and ran off the field.

“He said, ‘Mom, hold these.’ They were his two front teeth,” Cohen said with a laugh. “I thought she was going to pass out.”

Cohen added that her brother loved Hawaii, its sandy beaches and the sound of ukulele music.

Wong’s students and their parents are feeling the loss of the Rockwell teacher.

“He is the inspiration for my education major to become a PE/health teacher,” said former student Keli Mineishi. “We joked all the time about how I would replace him when he retired. I am devastated; the community has lost such a great educator.”

“Coach Wong - I am so happy that our kids had the privilege of having you as their PE teacher. You had a gift and they responded to you and they (and we) are better for it. Thank you for being an inspiration to my kids and to the thousands of others that you touched. Your memory and legacy will live on,” reads a note by Heidi Arizala Showman on a Wong remembrance Facebook page.

A funeral service will be at noon on Sunday at Riverview Cemetery, 0300 S.W. Taylors Ferry Road, Portland.

Condolences for the family can be sent to: Wong family, 12139 S.E. Slavel St., Portland, OR 97266.

McArdle will be working with his family to plan a local celebration of his life.

“With every passing hour, we become more aware of just how many lives Don touched. We were lucky to know him,” reads a note from McArdle and staff on the school’s website.


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