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A 'Neighborly Friendship': Remembering Mad River Valley Resident Don Alter

a brown house with a green roof
Don Alter's home on Airport Road in Fayston

In the last year of the pandemic, Vermont has lost more than 200 people to COVID-19. Those people were our family members, our friends, and our neighbors. 

Early in 2021, VPR reporters began reaching out to family members of Vermonters who died after contracting COVID-19. This is the fifth in a series of stories about their lives and what they left behind. Watch for three more stories throughout the week. Find stories and memories of those lost from their loved ones, here.

Cathy Pratt lives on Airport Road in Fayston, in the Mad River Valley. Donald Gene Alter lived across the road from her for the past 20 years.

“We had like the typical, lovely, neighbor experience,” she recalled. “You know, ‘Hey, I’m in Burlington, I might not have unplugged my coffee maker, could you go check?’ The I-gotta-get-my-snow-tires rides, ‘Hey I’m at Costco, what can I pick up for you?’”

"[Neighbors are] not your family but then you realize they kind of are, even more so." - Cathy Pratt

Especially in Vermont’s small towns, neighbors depend on each other. Whether an acquaintance or a friend, they’re the people who come over during power outages and help look for the dog when she runs off. 

Cathy and Don used to go for walks together down the dirt road. Occasionally they’d watch movies. Once, he took her on a motorcycle ride. He was kind to her son.

More from VPR: 'I Miss The Heck Out Of Him': A Year In, COVID-19 Has Killed More Than 200 Vermonters

“So it was pretty intimate that way,” she said. “We didn't hang out socially really, we went to a few gatherings with him but we didn't — we weren’t social friends like that.”

Alix Klein and her sister, Devin Klein Corrigan, weren’t related to Don, either, but they loved him too. He was their dad’s best friend. Alix can still picture the two of them together.

“Donny would usually have a denim flat shirt and a leather vest; he used to ride Harleys a lot so he always had that slight Harley look to him,” she said. “My dad was probably sitting in a pink polo shirt, both of them probably with like a margarita, hanging out, watching the sun set.”

Credit Courtesy
Don Alter and Devin Klein Corrigan at her wedding. Devin grew close to Don as an adult, often turning to him for advice.

Don was a classicMad River Valley guy.He loved sunshine and reggae. He’d been in the military and had worked in photography. He was into both eastern spirituality and Harley-Davidsons. His house in Fayston was full of plants.

He was tall, with broad shoulders, long arms and legs. He had a moustache and a deep voice that he used to make people laugh, said Devin.

“He was at every family holiday. He was at every single one of my birthdays from the time I was 14. He missed the last two ... He was absolutely an integral part of what my experience of community and family was, growing up here,” she said.

Don was ill in the last several months of his life. Then, last spring, he got COVID-19. He grew sicker and sicker. Devin called him weekly, even when he was hardly able to respond. She remembers yelling into the phone, “It’s Devin, I love you. And at one point he said, ‘Oh, Devy, I love you too.’”

That was their last conversation. Don Alter died on April 12, 2020. He was 81.

More from VPR: 'We Didn't Think It Could Happen, Then It Did': A Daughter Remembers Her Dad, Lost To COVID-19

Don’s neighbor, Cathy Pratt, watched the ambulance pull away the last time Don left his house. After she found out he wouldn’t be coming back, she told Don’s brother, who lives in Virginia, that she could clean out the house. She and her son spent the summer and part of the fall across the street, putting Don’s belongings in boxes. For Cathy, cleaning out Don’s house was a way of saying goodbye to her neighbor of 20 years. 

“[Neighbors are] not your family but then you realize they kind of are, even more so,” she said.

Alix Klein got some of Don’s houseplants; an aloe, a jade and a Christmas cactus. Her sister Devin has a ring Don gave her. She never takes it off.

Cathy said she’s never had a neighborly friendship like the one she had with Don. New neighbors moved into his house last month, and hopefully, she said, it will happen again.

Find stories and memories of some of the people Vermont lost to COVID-19, here.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Anna Van Dine @annasvandine.

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Anna worked for Vermont Public from 2019 through 2023 as a reporter and co-host of the daily news podcast, The Frequency.
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