Garden Grove

Donald H. Millenson, 1925-2017

DONALD MILLENSON was a resident of Garden Grove. He passed away at age 92.

The story goes that in the 1950s, as a handsome young father, Don watched a television special about the “automobiles of tomorrow” with his daughter, Laura, who recalls his excitement at the futuristic prospect of driverless cars. Throughout his life, Don looked expectantly to “the way of the future” and relished the present moment (especially when it included lox and bagel, or an episode of “Laugh In”); but he often reminded his children that “the past is the past.”

And the past is this: Matthew and Rose Millenson of Denver, CO, likely encouraged their middle son’s curiosity and recognized his intellectual talents. So did the US Navy. After Donald graduated from high school at age 17, he enlisted as a U.S. Navy Apprentice Seaman assigned to the V-12 training unit. After sending him to Naval Air Primary Training and pre-flight school, the Navy sent Don to Duke University to complete his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. When WWII ended, Don served in the US Navy Reserve before returning home to work as a chemical plant production supervisor and to date his hometown sweetheart, Marlene.


In their first year of marriage, the couple relocated briefly to Kansas before settling in Albuquerque, NM, where daughter Laura was later born. From 1951-1953, Don worked for Sandia Corporation (now Sandia National Laboratories) as a development engineer designing mechanical components for atomic weapons. Decades later, touring the nuclear museum near Sandia with one of his grandsons, Don stopped at a large display and said calmly, “Oh—I built that.”

In 1953, Sperry Gyroscope recruited Don, so the family relocated to Long Island, NY, where son Jeffrey was born the following year. Development engineer by day and Brooklyn Polytechnic graduate student by night, Don earned his master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. Armed with new qualifications and experience, in 1956 Don accepted a senior engineer position with American Bosch Arma Corp. to conduct both advanced research and special tests related to navigation. In 1957, Don ascended the ladder again, this time to project engineer for American Machine and Foundry Co., designing state-of-the-art instrument mounts for missile and satellite tracking. Meanwhile, the family also enjoyed the latest technology (black-and-white television, “hi-fi” stereo, and fancy kitchen appliances).

When Don accepted his next position as design project engineer for the Hamilton Standard Division of United Aircraft Corporation, the Hartford Times reported “Missile Engineer Joins Hamilton” (now a yellowed clipping from 1958). By the time daughter Andrea arrived, Don was well established in his field.

In 1961, Don leaped into the exciting space age, taking his family from Connecticut to Garden Grove, California—near Disneyland!—to work for the Apollo space missions on projects such as the Saturn space vehicle. Because of a system Don had developed for computer-automated drafting of hand-drawn schematics (the early days of CAD), the Apollo program saved over $140,000 (of which Don earned a $6,000 bonus) and NASA published a Tech Brief on his technique. Not surprisingly, the family often visited the original Disneyland. Don’s favorite area was Tomorrowland, but much to his children’s annoyance, his attention was often diverted by the live mermaids at the Submarine Voyage ride. Hollywood also beckoned: one day, Don and Marlene drove to LA to be contestants on a short-lived TV game show, “Your Surprise Package,” and won a king-sized bed, golf clubs, and a movie camera—a lucky moment.

Don’s aerospace career alternately soared and crashed in the volatile ’60s and early ’70s. After the end of his marriage in 1971, Don left the defense industry to become the senior CAD expert with Century Data under whose auspices Don  and 11 other delegates ventured to China for three weeks in 1980, part of a technical exchange program originated by President Eisenhower to further international understanding and goodwill among science and technology professionals. Always the punster, Don later described Beijing as “the city of Amazing Grays.”

While he admired Chinese antiquities, Don’s fascination with the future never waned, especially when the stuff of dreams became reality: the Internet and hybrid cars, flat screens and missions to Mars. He and his lovely wife, Shigeyo, together for 40 years, lived a good life in Southern California, not far from the ocean they both loved. After Don retired, they enjoyed traveling, cooking, taking classes (she learned English and hula; he tried to learn Japanese and mastered the art of bunka embroidery). They also taught Origami classes to children, visited and hosted Don’s children and grandchildren, and watched Korean video serials. True to his competitive nature, Don joined a poker club in his eighties and won the Leisure World Texas Hold ’Em tournament—one of his proudest accomplishments!

Don’s children and grandchildren have inherited his love for great books, his intelligence, and his sharp wit (“Dad” jokes abound). Like him, they love to cook (and eat!), create and fix things, and win at cards. Don’s successes supported not only his own hobbies (woodworking, gardening, inventing) and recreation (playing tennis, deep-sea fishing) but also his children’s varied interests. He may not always have understood or approved their choices, but he was proud of their accomplishments.

At age 92, Don had outlived his parents, his two brothers (Morton and Henry), and granddaughter (Jessica Paine). Today he is fondly remembered and sorely missed by his wife, Shigeyo; his three children (Laura Paine of Queensland, Australia; Jeffrey Millenson of Foster City, CA; and Andrea Penner, of Albuquerque, NM) and five grandchildren (Gabriel, Benjamin, and Nicholas Paine; Erin Gallegos, and Avram Penner, and their families). His great grand-children (Savannah, Sullivan, Harrison, Asher, and Amelie) will learn of his passions, successes, and failings from the many family stories that survive. Someday they, too, will know how to make the world’s best blintzes.

You embraced the future, Dad. May we do the same.

Entrusted to the care of Cremation Society of Orange Coast. (800) 678-0669


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