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TRIBUTES: "I had more lives than a cat" - the amazing life of Don Dolbel

TRIBUTES:

Monday 29 January 2024

TRIBUTES: "I had more lives than a cat" - the amazing life of Don Dolbel

Monday 29 January 2024


In his own words, Don Dolbel had "more lives than a cat"... Not only an Occupation survivor, he was also a boxer, a baker, an accordionist, a charity champion – and even a wing-walking daredevil.

A man of many talents, during his time, Mr Dolbel also worked in the merchant navy, as a docker on the piers and in the fields growing potatoes and tomatoes.

After he recently passed away aged 98, floods of tributes have poured in for the local legend, described by many as a "true Jerseyman".

Here, Express looks back on his many lives...

The Occupation years

Mr Dolbel was a teenager and boxing enthusiast living in St Ouen during the Occupation, and 18 at the time of D-Day.

"We managed in St Ouen quite well, looking back, but you hear stories of how bad it was in town," he previously reflected.

"I can remember more than once when I would go boxing training three times a week at Windsor Boxing Club on Windsor Road and my meal would be a beaten egg – that's it."

He also remembered some close encounters with the occupying forces while baking extra loaves and transporting a dead pig back from Grève de Lecq on his bicycle.

"I had more lives than a cat. I went straight past a group of soldiers, but they didn't stop me," he said.

Daredevil days

It was in 1945 that he became interested in riding motorbikes – and even recalled having "nabbed some petrol from the Germans" to fuel his own.

His passion for boxing led him to run four boxing clubs on the island at once in the 1970s.

"I also used to do a lot of boxing and at one time, in the 1970s, I ran four boxing clubs on the island."

Mr Dolbel continued to seek adventure and thrills even in his later years – in fact, that's when his daredevil spirit really came into its own.

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Pictured: Don Dolbel fulfilling a lifelong ambition in 2016.

In his 90s, he scaled Mont Orgueil to raise funds for charity, while also skydiving, motorcycling, kayaking, and even wing-walking.

2016 saw him fulfil a lifelong ambition, when he spent the evening flying above the island in tandem with a professional pilot, fully exposed to the elements in a two-seater microlight.

After taking to the skies, he exclaimed: "Life is for living.

"They say when you’re dead you are dead for a long time, but I’ll let you know!"

"A true Jersey gentleman"

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Pictured: Mr Dolbel at Hamptonne (Mel Rodrigues). 

But, while much of his life was adrenaline-fuelled, many will remember Mr Dolbel for his generous charitable spirit.

Having given more than two decades of his life to the charity in various ways, he was Jersey Heritage's oldest volunteer.

“For over 20 years, Don Dolbel played his accordion, helped bake cabbage loaves and spoke Jèrriais at Hamptonne Country Life Museum, where he would generate good cheer and encourage reminiscence of Jersey of yesteryear," said Volunteer Coordinator Julia Coutanche.

“With residents of Maison La Corderie, where he was living, Don visited La Faîs’sie d’Cidre, our Cider Festival, at Hamptonne last October. And although frail, he played a tune on his accordion – to the delight of everyone in the Cider Barn."

Jèrriais champion

And his passion for the island's culture was supported by his championing of the local language.

“Don loved Jersey, he was proud of the island, and worked hard to promote its culture and heritage and the traditional Jèrriais language," Ms Coutanche added.

"With his greeting, 'Bouônjour. Coumme est qu' tu'es?', he was a true Jersey gentleman, a pleasure to spend time with, a unique character who will be warmly treasured, sadly missed, and remembered fondly by everyone at Jersey Heritage." 

A charity singer who was "younger than any of us"

Mr Dolbel's later life also saw him apply his singing skills for a charitable purpose.

He was a long-term member of the Parklife Choir run by the Grace Trust, a Christian charity which runs a local food bank, and even joined them on a trip to Guernsey the year before the pandemic hit.

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Pictured: The Parklife Choir enjoyed a day trip to Guernsey in 2019 where they performed. 

Not only was it another sign of his community spirit and generosity, but he liked that, in his own words, it provided "somewhere to spend an afternoon".

Mr Dolbel explained at the time: "I’ve been alone [since 2001] when my wife, Doreen, passed away, so I don’t have a home anymore. It’s an empty house, a shell."

Gerry Padden and Vini Jones from the Choir commented: "Losing Don is really tough, he has been a part of the Parklife Choir since its very early days.

"We will never be able to sing 'To Make You Feel My Love' again without thinking of him."

They recalled how, over the years, Mr Dolbel always knew how to make an entrance.

"In a way, he was younger than any of us, I will always see him rolling up to singing in his little Benelli motorbike only a few years ago.

"He was an amazing guy. Rest in peace Don, we will miss you, Sir, thank you for inspiring us."

Tributes from the community

Islander Toby McMichael shared the news of Mr Dolbel's passing on the popular 'Jersey temps passé' Facebook group over the weekend, drawing attention to his incredible life – from his “mischievous” youth during the Occupation to his later achievements as an amateur boxer, sea-swimmer, and daredevil.

Toby added: “He is now with his much-loved wife Doreen at last.”

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Pictured: "He led an incredible life."

Hundreds of islanders shared their memories of Mr Dolbel in response, many referring to him as a "Jersey character" and a "true gentleman".

Among those to pay tribute were Deputy Carolyn Labey, who recalled a "lovely man", and Deputy Sam Mézec, who said: "Don was a real character and always absolutely charming whenever we had a chat at various events I'd bump into him at. RIP."

Pictured top: Cider-making at Hamptonne featuring Mr Dolbel playing the accordion (captured by Tony Pike), and Mr Dolbel (91) having a flight in a MicroLight with Pilot Mike Bowen. (captured by Dave Ferguson)

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