Don Coan, a longtime Sacramento resident who was an international philanthropist and human rights activist, died Oct. 2 of prostate cancer, his wife said. He was 87.
Mr. Coan (pronounced co-AN) devoted his life to principles of equality, social justice and cooperation. In high school during World War II, he wrote an unpopular composition criticizing the internment of Japanese Americans. He enrolled at predominantly black Howard University and joined sit-ins against racial discrimination in Washington in the 1940s.
Besides serving as an election observer in Latin America, he journeyed to Cuba in 1994 with a group of activists challenging the U.S. ban on travel to the communist country. He helped build a clinic for a Northern California Indian tribe and promoted economic ties between Sacramento and its sister city in Nicaragua, San Juan de Oriente.
He participated in civil disobedience demonstrations and wrote frequent letters to The Sacramento Bee protesting American involvement in Nicaraguan politics.
“He was a man of enormous energy and integrity who believed in putting his words into action,” his daughter Carol said.
Mr. Coan championed solar cooking as an inexpensive way to feed people, conserve natural resources and improve the quality of life in developing communities. He traveled to many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America as an ambassador for Solar Cookers International to demonstrate how to use energy from the sun to prepare meals, boil water and protect public health and the environment.
Since 1987, he spent every Friday at the group’s Sacramento headquarters folding cardboard boxes used to make solar cookers. He hosted cooking demonstrations for many years at his East Sacramento home, inviting neighbors to bring meals to prepare in the sun and share.
He was recognized as Solar Cookers International volunteer of the year in 1989 and 1993 and honored with the Order of Excellence in 2009.
“For Don, it was a social justice issue,” said Julie Greene, executive director of Solar Cookers International. “He was very dedicated to improving conditions globally.”
Born in 1926 in Berkeley, Donald W. Coan moved with his family to the Los Angeles area and graduated from Hollywood High School. He registered as a conscientious objector during World War II, spent two years at Los Angeles City College and earned a sociology degree from Howard University in 1950.
He married Grace Ito and traveled with her to volunteer at a work camp in Mexico with the American Friends Service Committee. They started a family and moved to Humboldt County to help build a clinic on the Hoopa Indian Reservation before settling in Sacramento in 1964. He spent 22 years with the Sacramento County Department of Social Welfare and retired as bureau chief in 1988.
He had five children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce. His son Norman was a teacher and musician who died in 1988.
He was married since 1980 to Barbara Jodry.
In addition to his wife and daughter Carol, Mr. Coan is survived by two daughters, Avis Rogers and Iris; a son, and Darwin; three stepdaughters, Kathryn Justman, Liz Jodry and Melinda Jodry; a stepson, Brian Jodry; two brothers, Richard and Eugene; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
Services are pending. Memorial donations may be made to Friends of San Juan de Oriente, Solar Cookers International or any charity.