Cover photo for Donald Thomas Payne's Obituary
Donald Thomas Payne Profile Photo
1925 Donald 2019

Donald Thomas Payne

December 20, 1925 — July 4, 2019

DONALD THOMAS PAYNE was born on December 20, 1925 in La Junta, Colorado. He was the oldest of Harry Lincoln and Grace Ruth Payne’s three children (Rodney and Phyllis). Growing up in La Junta, he was deeply involved in the Boy Scouts, and earned the rank of Eagle Scout. He participated in Koshare Indian dancing. He joined the US Navy ROTC, earning a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

When he finished college, WW II was over. He joined the Methodist Church missionary program that sent him to Seoul, Korea. There he met his wife, nee Adrah Ruth Dent. Part of his mission involved setting up radio stations at Yonsei University. During the Korean War, Don and Adrah left for Japan where they had their first and second sons: Gary Allen and Stephen Rea. Their third son, Randall Thomas, was born in West Virginia when they were on furlough. They returned to Korea, and their two daughters—Leigh Ann and Sara Ruth—were born. They left Korea in 1960 for Don to complete his doctorate at the University of Indiana (Bloomington).

After earning his doctorate in 1965, the family moved to New Jersey and renovated a 200-year-old house. The property afforded a lot of activities for the family, Organic gardening, beekeeping, old car restoration, and sailing and canoeing on Rosedale Lake that abutted the property. Before it was fashionable to do so, Don often rode a bicycle to work at ETS.

While soft-spoken and somewhat shy, Don loved to have people around. The kids, their friends, a large extended family, and friends in the community meant that people often dropped in. Saturday night pizza and Sunday dinners invariably included more than just the immediate family.

The Methodist Church was a big part of family life. The Payne’s were part of the Family Camping group. Don chaperoned at the Saturday night coffee house. He sang in the choir.

Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Don advocated for equal opportunities for African-Americans. He became active in a group working on fixing up houses. He and Adrah became “testers” to see if real estate agents were showing certain houses to black families and others to white families. Don worked with the Americans for Equal Opportunity to rebuild a house on Main Street in Pennington as an early nod to affordable housing.

By this time, Don had become a professor in the Educational Technology Department at New York University, on the Washington Square campus. He headed the Department for part of that time, overseeing technology used for education from film strip projectors to the prolific use of computers and artificial intelligence. His graduate students often spent the weekend at the house working with Don to finish their dissertations.


Don and Adrah built an environmentally sensitive home in the Sourland Mountains, with Don working closely with the architects, pursuing one of his passions in the home design. Don lived there until a few weeks before his death at Morris Hall in Lawrenceville. Right up until his final illness, he could be found splitting wood by hand in the yard.

Don loved to travel, leading groups from NYU to Paris, Greece and China before his retirement.
He received a Fulbright grant to teach in India. He enjoyed listening to classical music, jazz, and working Sudoku puzzles. He read the New York Times daily and not just for the daily crossword.

Don and Adrah would have celebrated their 70th anniversary on July 30.

In much of the way Don approached life he was ahead of his time. But he had enduring traditional values. There was no greater happiness for him than being surrounded by his family. His son Randy’s passing in 2012 deeply affected him. At his own death he was survived by the others he loved so much: his wife (Adrah), his sons and daughters and their spouses: Gary, Steve (Mary Lou Morris), Janet (Kelly), Leigh (Stephen Meili), and Sara (Jay Ottinger), his ten grandchildren (Aidan and Emory Payne; Faith and Grace Payne; Zachary and Abigail Payne-Meili; and Meredith (and Caleb) Newman, Emily, Jack, and Eliese Ottinger; and his great grandson Ra Ka’eo Polani’ula Payne-Lecker. They all grew up, knowing him, spending time with him in the woods, laughing and crying with him. He will be missed by all. But his spirit and curiosity, his joy of life, the importance he placed on fighting for what is right, for togetherness, and loving family, lives on in all of them.
To order memorial trees or send flowers to the family in memory of Donald Thomas Payne, please visit our flower store.

Service Schedule

Past Services

Memorial Service

Saturday, August 10, 2019

1:00 - 1:45 pm (Eastern time)

St Matthews Episcopal Church

300 S Main St, Pennington, NJ 08534

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