Richard Donovan, Ironstone Farm’s founder

Richard Donovan, the founder of Ironstone Farm and its charitable spirit, had a saying: it never rains at Ironstone. That sunny, never-give-in outlook has changed the lives of thousands of people through the nonprofit programs offered at the farm.
Mr. Donovan died June 15, 2015, at age 84. His loss has been felt deeply by many of those associated with our Andover organization benefiting children with special needs and others.
“Dick Donovan was the impetus and spirit behind the building and development of ‘everything Ironstone’ until recent years. It is because of his tenacity, perseverance and determination that we have the beautiful place we have,” said Deedee O’Brien, executive director, shortly after her friend’s death.
Born May 16, 1931, Dick Donovan grew up in Somerville, MA, one of five children of William and Viola (May) Donovan. As a child he designed and built a backyard chicken coop at age 7; played sports, especially boxing through which he was known as “Diamond Dick Donovan”; enjoyed museums, theater and music; rode his bike to pump gas at a job in Lexington; piloted his first solo flight at 16; and loved fishing, hunting and rowing.
After high school, he entered the service in the late 1940s, but his career was quickly ended by an accident that required many months of recovery. He graduated from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree and worked at Park Davis Pharmaceutical Co. He later taught biology, chemistry and physics at Billerica High School where he was the head of the Science Department for 14 years.
In 1960, Mr. Donovan purchased the land that is now Ironstone Farm. While teaching school and before he could afford a tractor, he cleared the land with an old Cadillac and built the house, barn and paddocks with his own hands, tools and equipment. When the farm was ready, in 1976 he retired from his teaching position to pursue his dream of raising and training Thoroughbred performance horses at Ironstone Farm. At the same time, he welcomed field trips of children with disabilities to enjoy his farm and animals, beginning with the Lowell Recreation Department Summer Camp for children with disabilities. These visits evolved into regular weekly, free programs – with all services donated by Mr. Donovan for the first decade.
In 1983, he founded the nonprofit organization Challenge Unlimited with a mission to use his farm and horses to provide therapies for children with disabilities. By the early 1990s more than 200 individuals a week were participating in the therapies offered. During this time he redesigned his farm to accommodate the needs of the nonprofit organization and spent the next decade building a therapy building, purchasing a carefully chosen herd of horses and working with the Challenge Unlimited board of directors to ensure the future of the farm and its programs. To that end, in 2001 Challenge Unlimited purchased Ironstone Farm and all of its assets, possible because of Mr. Donovan’s generous contributions, both financial and in-kind. Following the sale, he remained as Farm Manager and donated his time to design and help build a larger indoor arena that would give the organization financial stability and it programs the consistency they needed for year round programming. He also purchased two abutting homes and properties to allow the programs to expand and to protect the property from future encroachment. He worked with the Challenge Unlimited’s board of directors to make purchase of these properties possible, thus completing Ironstone Farm’s 19-acre campus. Today, Ironstone Farm provides beneficial therapy for more than 1000 individuals annually with a wide range of physical, emotional and cognitive disabilities through two nonprofits, Challenge Unlimited and Ironstone Therapy. Staff and volunteers use the homes to offer equine encounters and other new therapeutic programs for a wide variety of people including combat veterans with post-traumatic stress, people diagnosed with cancer, teen leaders, teens at risk and elders with memory issues. One of the homes has recently become the organization’s new Arts & Education Center serving children and young adults in the arts – a vision of Dick Donovan brought to fruition by the organization’s board. The Celebration of Life will include the unveiling of a sign adding a new name to Ironstone Farm: The Richard A. Donovan Center for Therapeutic and Recreational Riding.
Mr. Donovan was predeceased by his wife, Bernadette “Katie” Donovan, two brothers William and Robert and a sister, Mary Vocell. He is survived by son Richard “Duffy” Donovan, Jr., his wife Megan and their daughter Cali; daughter Bernadette “Bobbie” Donovan and her husband Steve Taylor; sister Claire Mountain, a close friend Mary-Elizabeth “Deedee” O’Brien and many nieces and nephews.
Abut 250 people attended a Celebration of Life event honoring Richard “Dick” Donovan that was held at Ironstone Farm, 450 Lowell Street, Andover, MA, on Sunday, Aug. 23.

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