Saying he is "blessed" to have a job he enjoys, 54-year-old CPA and suburban dad Steve Doner admits that a corporate career of implementing initiatives, driving change and crunching numbers can make him sound "decidedly uncool." He changes that image every time he goes in the basement of his Wheaton home and unleashes "the other side of Steve," Doner says.
That's where Doner and his 17-year-old son, Richard, hand-craft elaborate, custom-made, rocking electric guitars, which they donate to charity auctions.
During his teen years in Fort Wayne, Ind., Steve Doner played the trumpet in the high school band and jazz band. Admittedly nerdy, he also did well in an electronics class and configured audio equipment, speakers, strobe lights and a mirror disco ball for a dance music service he launched with a buddy.
"We didn't have DJ personalities. We pretty much just got up there and played records and had a light show," Doner recalls. "I hadn't done anything musical since then, except I've always liked to listen to music."
That changed in 2008 within a week after his then-seventh-grade son bought an electric guitar.
"Almost on a whim, I bought a bass for me," the dad says. "Soon thereafter, we started tinkering with upgrades of hardware and electronics."
A senior who plays the saxophone in the wind ensemble and jazz band at Wheaton North High School, Richard taught himself to play the guitar. He plays bass and some guitar in musical performances at the family's church, College Church in Wheaton. But the teen spends a lot of his free time in the basement with his dad.
"We jam together. He plays bass and I play guitar," says Richard Doner, who helps his dad design and build guitars but plans to study medicine in college. "We work well together on the guitars."
Fashioning a growing collection of Doner Design custom guitars by 2012, the family wanted to find a good outlet for all that hard work. In memory of Jenna Richards, the daughter of close family friends who was diagnosed with peripheral T-cell lymphoma in 2006 and died in 2011 at age 16, the Doners made two "Fight Back" guitars with military designs. They donated them in Jenna's memory to charity auctions, including the local Cystic Fibrosis Foundation chapter and Make-A-Wish Illinois, which gave Jenna a wonderful trip to swim with dolphins and grants similar wishes to other children diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions.
"The whole 'Fight Back' idea is so perfect for honoring Jenna," says Saralyn Richards, the girl's mom. "Jenna had a dream of being in the Army one day, so we would always talk about how her illness was her battle, and that she needed to stay strong in the Lord and 'fight, fight, fight.'"
She and her husband, Dave, and their son, Danny, helped pick the colors and designs they thought Jenna would have liked. A clarinet player until her illness damaged her lungs, Jenna "loved listening to all styles of music and had a desire to learn guitar or banjo someday," her mom adds.
With a motto of "Warming Hearts with Cool Guitars," the DonerDesigns.org website and Facebook page draw some financial donations and gifts of guitar parts from like-minded people. Steve Doner's wife, Jane, takes photographs and volunteers whenever needed. Their daughter Olivia, 20, a finance major at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, wrote the Spanish page on the website.
"Half the fun is creating something original," says Steve Doner, whose voice picks up speed and volume when he talks about a "Babicz full-contact 2-point fulcrum tremolo bridge," "three humbuckers with coil-splitting capability," a "white Warmoth neck with ebony fingerboard" and other elements that go into building their guitars.
Each guitar probably requires the father and son to put in between 80 and 120 hours of work, maybe more, says the dad. He adds that, for now, he just wants his guitars to make money for charity. The last one sold for $1,000 at a charity auction.
"We build guitars for enjoyment, but also with the hope that we can help bring joy to others. Jenna's memory is a part of the motive to help others," says Steve Doner, who notes the experience brings him a little something extra, as well. "Jamming and guitar-building have been great father-son activities."