Editor Extraordinaire – Donald Mildenhall MBE
Donald Mildenhall MBE has talked about his career to Michel Hooper-Immins
Published in October ’09
Donald Mildenhall MBE lives in the peaceful village of Beer Hackett – population only 81. His house looks over the fields to Batcombe Down, three miles from Sherborne, where he first started reporting the news in 1941. Renowned for his professionalism and integrity, Donald rose from the local reporter to become Editor of the Western Gazette. In the busy life that he calls retirement, Donald became a district and then a county councillor, but still takes great interest in Sherborne, his ‘patch’ for 68 years. Indeed, he still writes two interesting pages every week for the Sherborne edition, using his immense local knowledge.
For a man synonymous with Sherborne, it comes as a surprise to learn that Donald is actually a Londoner, born at Marylebone. ‘I consider myself Dorset by absorption,’ he laughs. His stepfather had been a master builder in Sussex and came to Yeovil in 1940 to help build Yeovilton air station. ‘Since the age of nine, I wanted to be a journalist,’ says Donald, ‘and have never regretted it.’ He went along to the Western Gazette office in Yeovil and joined as an office boy, until the coveted reporter’s job came up in 1941 and he started covering Yeovil and Sherborne.
Journalism was not a reserved occupation and inevitably he was called up in 1944 into the 1st Airborne Division, to make up for the Arnhem casualties. Discovering that Donald wrote shorthand, the Brigadier swiftly transferred him into the airborne artillery’s Regimental HQ. He participated in the liberation of Norway in 1945 – ‘The Norwegians were very glad to see us.’ Don then moved to the 6th Airborne Division, preparing to sail to the Far East, but at Gibraltar came the news that Japan had surrendered. Donald eventually went on to Palestine and was demobbed in early 1948.
Donald returned to the Western Gazette as a reporter and while in Yeovil met Pam, a receptionist at the Express & Echo. They married in 1952, enjoying 54 happy years together before she passed away in 2006. ‘She was a lot of fun,’ says Donald. Their elder daughter, Anne, was a nurse at St Thomas’s Hospital, but now lives in the South of France. Sarah is a sub-editor at the Western Gazette and son Steven has been in the Royal Navy and a paramedic, but now lives and works in Holland, with a Dutch wife. Donald has seven grandsons, but as yet no granddaughters.
At the Western Gazette for half a century, from 1941 to 1991 excluding his war service, Donald was always the top journalist on his patch, with a wealth of knowledge of people and events. The Gazette has always been particularly strong in Sherborne, where Don and Pam moved in 1951 from Yeovil, going to the lovely village of Beer Hackett in 1984. In 1978, Donald was promoted to Deputy Editor of the Western Gazette and Editor of Pulman’s Weekly News, its East Devon subsidiary.
Two years later, he became one of the best and most popular editors the paper has ever known. Having been a local reporter for forty years, Donald knew exactly what his readers wanted to see in the paper.
Elected President of the Guild of Newspaper Editors in 1989, he was the first weekly newspaper editor from the West Country to attain that distinction. His faithful service to journalism was recognised with the MBE in 1991. ‘At the investiture, the Queen asked me which newspaper I edited and seemed to know all about the Western Gazette,’ Donald remembers.
‘I always warned my staff to keep clear of membership of political organisations, to keep an open and unbiased mind and to convey the news people ought to know.’ Much speculation always attaches to the political leanings of editors and in retirement, Donald was elected to West Dorset DC for Sherborne West, then subsequently in 2001 to Dorset CC – as a Conservative. He received a letter from Lord Ashdown, former Liberal MP for Yeovil, saying, ‘I always thought you were one of ours!’
He stood down from Dorset CC in May. ‘I did enjoy my eight years on the County Council, particularly the Education Committee. I think much has been achieved serving the people of Dorset, for many years the county council with the lowest funding from Government.’
Donald is still busy in retirement as President of the Sherborne Conservatives, Vice-Chairman of the Yeatman Hospital, Governor of the Gryphon School, having formerly been Vice-Chairman of Foster’s and Lady Digby’s Schools. He is Secretary of Beer Hackett Parochial Church Council, Past President of Sherborne Rotary Club and a Trustee of Sherborne House. When I question so many commitments, plus being the Sherborne correspondent of the Western Gazette, Donald has a ready answer: ‘I’m happy to do it and I want to keep active – that’s so important.’ He gave up motorcycling only two years ago, having taken to two wheels just before he retired.
Looking back, Donald has seen ‘so many changes in the newspaper world. Today the paid-for titles are competing with more and more free sheets. The internet has newspapers free online, which is yet more competition. But I still think there’s an important role for titles like the Western Gazette, founded in 1736. A good journalist has integrity, is honest and understands the community in which he or she works. I always thought newspapers should print a sprinkling of bad news, but fully report the good side of life.’
Having spent nearly seventy years in Dorset, Donald Mildenhall has a deep and abiding love of the county. ‘I could not have wished for a better county in which to spend most of my years, among so many wonderful people, who are so genuine and interested in the community. Temptation came my way three years before retirement, when one of my former Crewkerne reporters got in touch. He had become managing director of a newspaper and offered me the editorship. I was very tempted – it was the Bermuda Sun! Reluctantly I turned it down, because Dorset is my home.’