Life is an Adventure: How Donna and Dr. Mike Metke Approah Retirement

by Robert Marlin

Speaking frankly about her husband of fifty-two years, Donna Metke says that Mike was always an adventurer. “When he was twenty, he joined the Peace Corps and went to Costa Rica. I think that was his first real taste of life as an adventurer: going to a foreign land and mixing with new people who had a different background from his own. It was his first opportunity to live among people with a different culture, different foods, different language. He has been looking for adventures ever since.”

Mike and Donna both say they came from humble beginnings. Mike grew up on a family farm, “rich in every way except money.” Donna remembers working after school at a pharmacy during junior high. “Neither of us had extravagances when we were growing up. I think that is one of the reasons behind our mutual love for traveling,” says Donna. As a young married couple, they often took short trips backpacking, surviving on $15 a day. “Today, we usually travel in more comfort,” Mike says laughing.

Dr. Mike Metke was the sixth person to accept the position of President of Tyler Junior College. “Donna had a wonderful career in education in Washington and Texas. She was awarded statewide Texas teaching excellence awards twice and was named Teacher of the Year several times in Washington. We planned someday to come back to Texas, hopefully to a college town with friendly people and live close to our children and grandchildren,” Mike explains. “I had a five-year ‘forever green’ contract in Washington and was totally engaged there when TJC’s search consultant called. I said I wasn’t available; but when he called again, he talked to Donna. We went to see TJC and Tyler and everything changed. It scares me that we almost missed this amazing college and community. Perhaps it was divine intervention, or another example of how we should always listen to our wives!”

Donna agrees, stating that they both fell in love with the city and its people. “When we seriously considered leaving the Seattle area, we were looking for a place where Mike could complete his career and then retire there. Tyler was a perfect location for us. We loved the rolling hills and lakes nearby, and that it was an educational center and a medical center with the most welcoming people we have ever met.”

Arriving in 2007, the Metkes immediately settled into their new life in East Texas. It was a life that offered opportunities to get involved with so many worthwhile projects, both at the college and throughout the community. “Donna made the decision to leave her career in education to become the full-time First Lady of TJC. It is amazing how quickly she was able to get involved in the community,” says Mike. Donna elaborates further, “I was sixty when we arrived. My children were grown, and I threw myself into volunteer work. I always believed that the best way to make new friends in a community was through volunteerism. I was hosting and organizing events at the college, but I also found time to get involved with the Literacy Council of Tyler and the Junior League of Tyler’s Mistletoe & Magic. Offers to join various women’s clubs soon came and I accepted positions of leadership in each. We were amazed at the number of philanthropic organizations that were in a city the size of Tyler, and I soon found it was very easy to get involved and be part of organizations that were making a difference in the lives of so many people. I also took bridge lessons and met a few ladies there; the four of us have been playing together ever since. It was all about connecting with the community.” 

Donna’s work with the Literacy Council was particularly satisfying because of her thirty-eight-year background as an educator. She helped organize the annual LCOT Spelling Bee and helped get together a TJC team that has won many times over the years. “Donna was herself a member of that first TJC Spelling Bee team, and her involvement with the Literacy Council remained one of her primary interests, serving on its board for many years,” says Mike. At the same time that Donna was building a resume in volunteerism, TJC was providing Mike with rewards and challenges. “My predecessors did an amazing job. TJC earned a worldwide reputation during so many golden years of its history. My immediate predecessor, Dr. Bill Crowe, was a terrific president and ex-president.” 

Metke believes that the TJC campus and buildings are the most beautiful he had ever experienced. “That made it hard to communicate how badly funding was needed for key infrastructure,” he explains. “Voters held a rollback election in 2005, which removed critical funding that had already been declining. In 1980, the state funded over 80% of TJC’s operations, but by my arrival, state support had declined to just 20% of TJC’s expenses. Physics students started measuring building cracks and shifts, our dental hygiene program was threatened with losing its accreditation, sinkholes sprang up, and power failures caused frequent class closures.”

During his tenure as president, Metke developed a close relationship with TJC’s Board, which he says became the best board he has ever known. “Everyone pulled together for TJC, and after making $28 million of critical infrastructure repairs, we went on to open TJC Centers in Lindale, Jacksonville, and Rusk. We secured partnerships and voter funding to build the Rogers Nursing and Health Sciences Center, and the new Planetarium. Over time, we doubled the land holdings of TJC and added the Energy Center on the West campus, Crossroads student housing, the Apache Woodlands, and we made TJC more beautiful, welcoming, and safe. To recruit and keep great employees, we began free tuition for TJC dependents and created an improved retirement program to replace social security, which had been dropped decades earlier.” 

Donors responded generously by funding new facilities and scholarships, and TJC achieved four-year college status. Two baccalaureate programs were added, with approval for up to three more new degrees. The athletic and academic programs continued piling up national championships by enrolling more of the best students ever to attend TJC.

Today, TJC has 306 full-time faculty members, 248 part-time faculty members and serves 13,000 students. “Throughout my career, the students have always been my priority. Education was the great equalizer for Donna and me, and it is doing the same for our students,” Metke says.

Retirement was a hard choice for Mike to make. He saw people who didn’t know what to do with themselves upon retiring. Worse yet, many who should have retired, waited too long, and found themselves too ill, or too worn out, to enjoy retirement. “I wanted to go out at the top of my game,” he reflects. “I always left on good terms with people wanting me to stay, and that was my intention when it came time to leave TJC. I stayed a year longer than planned to make sure that the donor funding for the TJC Promise Program and the Rogers Palmer Center for the Performing Arts was secured.”

Another consideration that weighed heavily on his mind was not getting in the way of his successor. “I had known Juan Mejia since the late 80s, when he was a young teaching assistant and then a teacher at South Texas College. He became my assistant and we have remained friends ever since,” Mike recalls. “After I left, Juan continued to rise all the way to the number two position at STC. The only job I had open at TJC was the number three position, along with my promise that it would be good for his career. Juan’s faith was rewarded. When it came time to consider a successor, it became clear to the Board that Juan was at the top of the list. Juan is

such a great communicator and full of energy. He was the perfect choice to become TJC’s newest president.”

Mike had witnessed and heard horror stories about other college presidents who had difficulty letting go of the reins. “I didn’t want to get in Dr. Mejia’s way during the transition. When I announced my retirement in June of 2019, Donna and I hit the road by the Fourth of July to give TJC’s new president some space.” The couple took a pause to see friends and relatives and then embarked on a nine-week trip, visiting eleven national parks, enjoying the outdoors by hiking at least five miles every day. Mike explains, “We had a long bucket list, and we immediately set about fulfilling that list.”

“When Mike retired as President of TJC, I retired from the Literacy Council Board, but kept my membership active. That way I could still help, but could have time to travel with Mike,” says Donna. Staying active is a priority for the Metkes. “Friendships seem more important as one ages; so, we try to build on those relationships. For us, we look at retirement as just another chapter. It is an opportunity to discover new adventures each day. A long-held belief that Donna and Mike share is how travel expands the mind. “If I have learned anything since leaving that little dairy farm, it’s that travel stretches the mind; and once that happens, it never shrinks back to what it was,” observes Mike.

Reflecting on his favorite TJC memories, Mike says he has a lifetime’s worth. “Something triggers a smile every day, like the TYLER TODAY Magazine story about finding Harry Jenkins. I always wondered about the great unsolved mystery of the stolen statue. On a whim I contacted the Smith County sheriff, who loaned us his best cold case investigator to work with our criminal justice students. The true back story is unbelievable! In the end we recovered our life-size, bronze Harry Jenkins statue along with an amazing and funny resolution to a twenty-year-old theft. There are many thousands more TJC smiles I’ll always have.”

The things that mean the most to Metke are clear: “Our TJC honors program dropped to fourteen students and was about to close, so I placed it under me so I could revamp it. In two years, we had over 300 of the area’s top students and had to cap their enrollment. When a donor found out, she made sure the bright futures of our top area students that came from humble families would be funded forever. She left $19 million to the Presidential Honors Program and the TJC Promise.”

Included in his lifetime of memories are the incredible people he met along the way who shared his vision for the future of TJC. “I had no wrinkles before I met Margaret and Jim Perkins, but almost all my wrinkles are from how they make me smile every day. Margaret and Jim spearheaded the Rusk Promise Program and gave us the courage to start the TJC Promise. Those scholarship programs will change all of East Texas forever!”

For those new to this community, the TJC Promise Program provides an opportunity to earn up to two years of tuition and fees at TJC. During their freshman year of high school, area students and their parents sign a pledge to meet criteria ensuring that the parents and student will work together to maintain good attendance, earn good grades, behave well, and serve their community through approved service projects.

“Another unforgettable memory that gives me nineteen million smiles is the recovery of our major gift that was nearly stolen from TJC,” Mike recalls. “The untold story of that theft and how we worked with our local heroes and friends to rescue every penny is a nail biter! What a movie thriller that would make, but our attorney would have to approve it first. If she does, I want Felicity Jones to play her in the movie version!” 

Since retirement, the Metkes built a home on property they owned on Lake Tyler and became full time lake people. They travel frequently to see friends and family in New York, Wisconsin, Seattle, and Costa Rica. 

Mike recently tested his total knee replacements with a ninety-two-mile pilgrimage on El Camino Santiago through Portugal and southern Spain. They stay busy with commitments in the Tyler community. Donna is involved with the Women’s Fund of Smith County, P.E.O., Garden Club, and two book clubs. Mike is active in Tyler Rotary, Tyler biking groups, and serves on the UT Tyler Regional Development Board. Occasionally, they get called upon to take part in activities at TJC, in which they are always delighted to be included. “When they call, we show up to give our support. We give of our time and finances. Our investments in endowing student scholarships pays better dividends than any other investment we have ever made,” says Donna. “This is our home now. We love Tyler and East Texas more than ever.”

The Metkes recently made an impulse purchase for a trip to Antarctica. By the time this article comes out in the December 2022/January 2023 issue, they will have made the trip, which includes Zodiac landings and two submarine explorations beneath the ice. “I will not be going along for the submarine rides,” Donna says. “That’s his dream, not mine.” 

Donna says that her family regards her as a good sport, always willingly supporting Mike as he attempts to reach another goal on his list. “Mike decided to do his age in mountain summits and high points. No surprise that he became obsessed. On week four of his total knee replacement, he drove to Mt. Driscoll in Louisiana, so we could hike up the two miles and visit with other high pointers at the top!” Mike started climbing mountains when the couple was living in Seattle, first climbing Rainier and then many other state high points plus international high points including Fuji, Ben Nevis, Kilimanjaro, Hallasan, and Chirripo.

As the Metkes live this chapter of their lives together, as fully as possible, they both look back on careers that they found fulfilling. They have a family they enjoy spending time and adventures with, and they still look for adventure in every sunrise and sunset. A plaque on their wall, given to them by friends, is inscribed, “To everything there is a season, a time to be lost, and a time to be found. Father’s Day 1987” Donna noted “This is our special season after Mike’s second chance at life.”

The plaque is a reminder of the time Mike was lost at sea and had to swim forty-three miles back to shore, while Donna’s first news report was that his body had been recovered after twenty-eight hours in the ocean.

Alas, that is an adventure story for another time.