Her Life

Celebrating Donna's Life

Donna Gayle Cucunato was born on September 9, 1941 at Long Beach Hospital and raised in Bellflower, California by her two adoring parents Jane and Terry Schisler.  Showing a love for music and dance at an early age, her mom enrolled her in ballet classes six days a week and it became an integral part her life forever.  She studied and participated in local productions throughout her childhood and at 17 went to live at the Studio Club in Hollywood, for aspiring dancers, actresses and models.  Along with a professional dance career, she modeled in numerous TV commercials, magazine print ads and in fashion designer showrooms.      


In 1958 she met the love of her life, Charles Mario Cucunato, a first generation Italian who had just moved to California.  On a beautiful California summer day that year, Donna (then only 16 years old) was shoe shopping at Lakewood Center.  Walking into the store where Chuck worked as a shoe salesman he immediately noticed a tall, poised, elegant young girl, just like the ballerina she was, and was mesmerized by her beauty and energy.  After a two year courtship they married in Burbank, California on June 26, 1960 and celebrated 51 years of marriage just a few months ago.  Donna was married to the love of her life and Chuck undoubtedly felt the same, and the unique bond they felt was visible in the many ways they expressed their love for each other.  Even after all the years they were often still seen holding hands and leaving love messages. Theirs was truly a great love story; they were intertwined with everything in life… and best friends throughout all of it.  Chuck will forever measure his days by her absence. 


In 1963 and then again in 1965 Donna gave birth to two daughters, Carrie and Christa.  She devoted live-long love and dedication to raising them, living their joys, caring their cares and sharing all of their hopes and dreams. Donna was the heartbeat of their home and they are the sum of what she contributed to their lives.  Throughout their adult lives Donna was both mother and best friend.


In the early 1970’s Donna went back to school earning both Bachelor and Master degrees in dance and psychology from California State University of Long Beach, each awarded Summa Cum Laude.  As an Associate Professor Emerita of the College of Educational Studies, Donna joined the Chapman University faculty in 1976, bringing a breadth of knowledge from her recently completed education and, in addition to these qualifications, by this time was an accomplished dancer and dance instructor with extensive professional experience.  Her professional performances included stage, such as with the Los Angeles City Ballet, the Miss Universe Pageant and at the Hollywood Bowl, and television, including the Dean Martin Show, Dinah Shore Show and the Grammy Awards.


Shortly after her arrival at Chapman, Donna became the director of the fledgling dance program, serving in the capacity for 16 years.  The students received nurturing support and motivation as well as firm discipline from Donna, and many of them became successful professionals in the field.  During these years there was no proper dance floor on which to practice or perform, and Donna fundraised for costumes and tours.  She played a fundamental role in the success of Chapman’s annual American Celebration fundraiser, serving as choreographer for ten productions. 


Her career spanned years of major growth and change.  Donna served the needs of the institution, accepting every new task with commitment and enthusiasm.  After directing the dance program, she became coordinator of the Liberal Studies program, serving in that role until her retirement. Under her leadership, the program grew to over 180 majors.  Donna taught 32 different classes in education, dance, and movement and exercise science.  A strong advocate of faculty governance, she served on 18 different committees and councils, including the academic, faculty personnel, student standards, library, and church relations, assuming leadership roles in many of them.


Despite her heavy load of teaching and service, Donna wrote and obtained numerous grants.  These included one from the California Arts Council to mainstream arts into the curriculum, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to fund the design of an interdisciplinary education in the arts and language.  She was a frequent consultant and presenter in the professional organizations in which she was active, such as the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance and the International Tap Association.  Donna also enriched the life of community by bringing major dance companies to Chapman, including the Bella Lewitsky Company.  In light of her countless contributions, it is not surprising that Donna was nominated for the “150 Faces of Chapman” in commemoration of their 150th anniversary.


Admired and respected for her dedication and passion for serving students, it was only a few months ago that Chapman celebrated her retirement. Her retirement celebration demonstrated the tremendous reverance and love in which she was held by her students and colleagues. Once of her former dance students stated, “Right when I think I cannot take another step, I look over and see Ms. Cucunato working even harder . . ; she pushes me to work hard through her dedication.”  A liberal studies major noted, “I remember how encouraging and complimentary Donna was to me, and it helped me build the confidence I have today.”  A colleague thanked her for being “a friend, a treasured colleague, a partner in staging musicals, and an inspiration . . . .  I have always looked to you as a sort of rock . . . when times were difficult you maintained dignity, kindness, intelligence and spirit.”  One staff member used one word to describe Donna – belief; she wrote that “Donna believed in everyone’s potential, and gave all she had to lead them to it.  She led by example, she led by her high standards, and she led with integrity, grace and encouragement.”  Another described Donna’s valiant struggle with cancer in the following words, “She faced death straight on as she faced life.”  Her dean, Dr. Don Cardinal commented that “Donna’s calm and dignified approach to work and life . . .  made her a favorite among students, staff and faculty.”


Faith was center to her life.  She served in many positions at church but it wasn’t the titles that were important.  At the heart of her core, she was a true disciple at various churches throughout her life including First Christian Church and Canyon Hills Presbyterian Church in the most recent years.  She gave of her time and money to multiple causes including Habitat for Humanity, International Rescue Committee, Oxfam America, Nature Conservancy and many more.  She was a true believer that it starts with one person and there was always something more that needed to be done.  She was a consummate environmentalist for even before it was en-vogue - recycling, composting and even raising her own worms for the vegetable garden.  Of course, she drove a hybrid!        


She loved nature and being outdoors, and was an avid gardener.  Her eclectic, cottage-style garden was featured on many Mary Lou Herd garden tours and she spent countless hours preparing the ground and nurturing her blooms.  Donna tackled weeding with the same commitment as she did with every task, putting in countless hours working away at sunrise and many times until after sunset.  Her garden filled her up.  She lived life to the fullest often doing more in one day than most do in a weekend.    


Nothing brought Donna more happiness than spending time with her family, including granddaughters Madeline and Olivia, and the entire family took many vacations together throughout the country and world.  She was the matriarch indeed, and planned numerous excursions that contributed to wonderful memories and bonding for all. All who knew Donna know that she lived life with passion and great joy.  One of her favorite verses was “And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.”  Donna always danced.  She often signed her e-mails and notes with “Peace, light and love”, and we will always remember her grace by the illumination of her spirit, her vibrant energy and warm smile forever.