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Search for Donna Lee becomes a catalyst for reunion

It had to be her.

Over the weekend, a man named Joe Salazar said he knew the 3-year-old girl who nearly drowned in the Santa Fe River but for an unassuming hero named Glen Malin, who rescued her that harrowing day in May 1958.

The girl’s name was Donna Lee Vigil and, in this column last Friday, I related how the youngest son of her soggy Samaritan hoped he might be able to find her just to see how life had turned out six decades later.

Several of you contacted me with tips you had unearthed about the little girl, who would now be about 65. But one Donna Lee Vigil was born five years after the near-drowning incident; another was a Vigil by marriage. Two Donnas were born in the 1950s, but not in the right year.

There were Donna Vigils with different middle names, dozens of Rose Vigils – the name of Donna Lee’s mother, according to an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Promising searches dried up like the river. Even the amazing Ann House, a private investigator who can track down just about anybody, found a Ross Vigil, identified as a maid, listed in a 1958 city directory as the occupant of 901 Alto, where mother and daughter were said to have lived. Neither Rose nor Ross was mentioned again.

But Salazar said he knew the right Donna because his brother was married to her sister, Angela. Their mother’s name was Rose, and they had grown up in Santa Fe, just like he had.

Donna had passed away, but his sister-in-law was alive and could tell me everything I wanted to know, he said.

Despite the right names in the right city, it was the wrong Donna. It was simply coincidence.

And it wasn’t the only coincidence.

After I explained to Angela that I was looking for the Donna who nearly drowned in the river when she was 3, she sounded confused – but not for the reason you might expect.

“Oh,” she said, “I thought you were talking about my daughter. She’s the one who drowned.”

Little Angela Renee had been nearly 3 when she had wandered too close to what was usually a placid fishing stream high in the Pecos, where the family was camping in 1972.

“There had been bad rains, so the river was running high and fast,” she said. “They used to call it Mad River when it got like that.”

The currents took the little girl quickly, her body found a half-mile downstream. Her mother said rescuers found a doll in the water and speculate that Angela Renee had been trying to pull it out of the river when she fell in.

There had been no Glen Malin to save her.

And maybe there will be no Donna Lee for Malin’s son to find.

But Larry Malin said that, in telling his father’s story, he found something else: a reconnection with his three older brothers.

Life for the Malin family was borne upon choppy waters, the brothers learning to drown their feelings while the storms of their childhood swirled around them.

The brothers grew up and moved on, but the ghosts of those days had lingered.

“I expected to roil up some feelings amongst the brothers going back to some challenges during our upbringing. It certainly did, and we shared many e-mails,” Larry Malin said about telling his father’s heroic story, emphasizing the word “many.”

Eventually, he said, the conversations turned to good memories and those roiled feelings turned to laughter. And that laughter, he said, turned to peace.

“Since our mother passed, the four of us have only been together once and that was in 2018,” he said. “It appears this will be the catalyst to get the four of us together again.”

We are not always heroes. We are not always rescued. Memories can burn, but they can also brighten the way forward. And, sometimes, if we can just hang on, we reach calmer waters.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793,, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.


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