Former nanny to the king of Jordan, a Belgian baron and the premier of Newfoundland, Denise Donald has died age 71.
The north-east born “international woman of intrigue” lived in America since the early 80s.
Denise Veronica Donald was born on May 6, 1952 in Aberdeen, though the Granite City commanded less of her time than anywhere else.
Daughter of James and Bunny Donald, and sister to Brian, her father died when she was just seven. The family moved to Perth and then Peebles before a stint in Kenya visiting her maternal grandparents.
On their return the relocated to the Isle of Man where Bunny lived the rest of her life.
Denise knew from a young age that she wanted to travel. It occurred to her than becoming a nanny may facilitate this “at someone else’s expense.”
To that end she enrolled at the Princess Christian College for Nursery Nurses in Manchester, at the age 18, believing it to be a favourite with recruiting royal families looking for nannies.
She exceeded even her own ambition.
Denise became one of the most sought-after nannies in the world.
It wasn’t unknown after a “glass of wine or two” for her to claim she could have been the nanny “for a certain red-haired former royal family member had she so chosen.”
Over her career she did, however, serve as nanny to oil-rich Middle-eastern families, the premier of Newfoundland and the consul general of Costa Rica. She was also employed by a high-ranking Kenyan diplomat, a Belgian baron and was in charge of the of Jordan‘s twin daughters, Zein and Aisha.
It was a drastic change to the trajectory of her life when she landed in Iowa in 1983.
Home from home
On the orders of her employer she flew to Des Moines.
Jon Gaskell, a 35-year-old father-of-four whose wife had been killed by a drunk driver was in desperate need of a nanny.
“It should be noted that he misfired badly on his first three attempts at hiring a nanny,” said Jonnie Gaskell, who was 11 when Denise arrived at their home.
His siblings Zechariah, Jacob and Anna were two, four and 12 years old respectively.
In her Nanny Register profile Denise wrote that she tended to work for wealthy families. Adding, “with women who would like to think they’re too busy to look after their own children.”
This was not the case with the Gaskells. It was full contact parenting.
Tragedy to triumph, and back again
“Even though the Gaskells were more Royal Tenenbaum than royalty, and the ship she was tasked with sailing was taking on water, Denise grabbed the wheel with both hands, added Jonnie.
“She took a horrible situation, brushed it off and put everyone upright.”
Until Denise met the Gaskells she had never stayed in one place for more than 18 months. Her travels and employment had taken her to Greece, France, Switzerland, Italy, Turkey and Kenya but she stayed with the Gaskell family for nearly nine years until Jon Gaskell remarried in 1991.
However, happiness quickly turned to tragedy when Jon died just six days after his wedding.
Jonnie said: “Denise hurried back, helping bridge the gap between, ‘what the hell just happened?’ and ‘what the hell are we going to do now?'”
Chosen family in Iowa
Denise made life-long friends in Des Moines. With her infectious laugh and thick British accent she was the life and soul of any soiree, tennis match or afternoon tea. She would often be found sitting on the bench at a dog park with her beloved Westies. When it finally came time for retirement, she chose Des Moines.
In every tangible way, the Gaskell children were Denise’s children.
The Gaskell’s children’s children became her grandchildren. All of whom she referred to as lovey, chicken or sweet pea.
Iowa was Denise’s home. It was there she learned to shoot a machine gun and how to make a perfect chocolate mousse. Her legendary holiday meals and Sunday brunches became the envy of those without a seat at her table.
Adored by all
In her latter years Denise battled brain and breast cancer. More than once she said she didn’t mind being an old woman, but “being a sick old woman is for the absolute birds.”
“She lost some of the spring in her step but never the twinkle in her eye. And she never stopped loving, oh so profoundly,” said Jonnie.
Denise passed away on August 24. She was predeceased by her parents and brother. She is survived by her sister-in-law, the Gaskell children, families, friends, dogs, and the many other people whose lives she touched.
In the family tribute it read that “Denise was adored by all. She was one of a kind. She will be deeply, deeply missed.”