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Obituary of Don Willcox, Champion of Thailand’s Disabled

Don Willcox, died peacefully in his sleep at age 85, in July 24th. Many long timers in Chiang Mai will have known him as a rather cantankerous, but always passionate and deeply dedicated, champion of Thailand’s disabled.

I myself have known Don for decades, my parents sharing his passion in helping the disabled. While difficult to work with – Don was constantly frustrated by how Thai officials and many in Thai society treated the disabled, and often ended up in antagonistic disputes over various matters, Citylife was in constant contact with him, as he would send us regular reports and updates on the many great deeds and needs of his organisation, The Foundation to Encourage the Potential of Disabled Persons, formed in 1993, a year after our magazine was founded.

Wheelchairs were made by the disabled and donated to the disabled; ground floor accommodation was built for many people unable to climb up to the typical northern Thai houses’ living quarters, disabled compatible toilets were installed, operations were paid for, prosthetic limbs and medical aid was offered and one campaign after another was launched to raise funds. Over the years Don Wilcox made thousands of lives better; prolonging them, enhancing them, offering them opportunities and funding scholarships. His achievements are impossible to list as they are near endless and his impact on how we view and treat our disabled will take years to fully be appreciated.

We received emails recently from his daughter and ex-partner, giving us some insight into who he was before he became the champion of the disabled that we knew here in Chiang Mai:

“Dad was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on July 23rd 1933. He married my mom, Sandy Belden, in 1955, they spent their early years together living in Germany and Minnesota. In 1959, they decided to move their young family across the country to embark upon unknown adventures in Peacham, Vermont where they ran an inn out of our house called “The House of Three Stories”. He eventually became the postmaster, and we housed the post office down in our barn.
It was at this time that dad became interested in writing and he attended Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. He worked at the Breadloaf Writers Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, writing, “How to Craft Books” and eventually secured a contract for a five-volume series of design books on Scandinavia,” wrote Kristy Wilcox. Although she says that while she hadn’t seen her father in 20 years, she was in regular contact with him via Skype and email and her son had recently surprised both her and her father with a plane ticket for her first trip to Thailand this coming April. “His life ended too short for me, I never did get that hug. He is very much missed by all,” she added.

Following a divorce from his first wife, he met a fibre artist from the US, Louise Todd Cope, and continued working on crafts and poetry in Denmark until they returned to the US in 1976 to build a mountain top house which was so unique and progressive for its organic, freeform and use of only hands to build, that it was featured in multiple magazines.
“It was then that he turned his focus toward assisting disadvantaged persons in Guatemala, Nepal and Thailand,” added his daughter Kristy via email.

“He was an artist, humanitarian and free spirit, who chose to live outside the box. He was a world traveller who created his own oasis wherever he landed – Peacham Vermont, Faaborg Denmark, Penland North Carolina and Chiang Mai Thailand. He has been a writer his entire life. Writing books on Crafts and Design, Disability, Children and numerous books on poetry. As a humanitarian he was involved with creating The Hands in Outreach programme, to educate young girls in Nepal, which continues to this day. His passion for helping people lead to the start of The Foundation to Encourage the Potential of Disabled Persons, which will go on in his memory.

He was a loving and caring man that leaves behind his Thai family as well as his American family of three daughters, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. His sarcastic whit and odd sense of humour will forever be missed.”
According to Todd Cope, Don began to lead textiles tours to Thailand, Nepal and Indonesia and it was during one of these trips that he was moved by the plight of the Nepalese people, offering to pay for the education of a young woman with no opportunity, that was the birth of Hands in Outreach, an organisation for educating girls in Nepal and Tibet which continues today. Just last year one of the recipients of Don’s organisation earned a law degree in Nepal, passing the bar mere days after his death this month.

I met Don Wilcox many times two decades ago, but as a young budding journalist with little experience, I soon irritated him with my lack of ability to help and we both agreed it was best to communicate by email instead. Over the years, Citylife has published dozens of stories, news, and feature stories about Don and his great work and we emailed one another regularly and fondly. I can’t cover all of the many important issues we worked on, but here are some of the more memorable highlights:

One day, around ten years ago, I was sitting in the Mandarin Oriental’s Horn Bar, when I was introduced to a disabled Australian man called Bill Moss. It turns out that he was a famous philanthropist who supported many disabled causes. I told him about Don and his important work and wrote down the name of his foundation. A year later Don wrote to me to tell me that Bill Moss had sent him a large donation, telling me again a mere year ago that Moss was still sending his foundation financial support.

Citylife Garden Fair has twice raised funds for the foundation, first in 2007 and again in 2013, when we received a lovely letter from Don in appreciation.

We were contacted by Don in 2013 again with a very distressing incident wherein his neighbours had complained to the local sub-district office that the noise and presence of so many handicapped in the housing estate was lowering the property value. Don then went on to quote an official as saying, “the government [should] select an unused mountain top and gather all disabled persons together and ship them off to this mountain top where they can live removed from society and free of harassment.” Almost quivering with outrage, Don and Citylife launched an anti-discrimination campaign, which ended the dispute with the officials, though he later told us that he still received complaints from his neighbours.

In 2011 Citylife published an article written by intern Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn about the disabled in Thailand, titled ‘The Missing Disability Sign’ prominently featuring the foundation. Two days before Don passed away this year, we were visited at the office by a law firm who told us that a wealthy disabled man had read the article in 2011 and had left a significant amount of money for the foundation in his will. I immediately emailed Don to tell him that while I was unable to give details as yet, since the will was still in probate, good news was soon to come his way. He wrote back that he was looking forward to hearing more about it. That night he passed away.

Don was married twice in Thailand, once to Sunan Wilcox, a polio survivor, and recently to Piranan Singjai, who will be continuing Don’s work on the foundation. Interestingly, Don had recently written to me to assure us that he had put all of his affairs in order, and that should something happen to him, the foundation would continue to fight for the disabled.
Anyone wishing to support the continuing of Don Wilcox’s great works for Thailand’s disabled, please contact www.assistdisabled.org.

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