Eleanor and the Rev. Ivan Dornon arrive in Japan, 1956.
Photo: Courtesy the Dornon family
In the early 1930s depression era, a little boy named Ivan Dornon spent most of his time in the woods in eastern Ohio with his father, gathering saplings to make barrel straps. Who could have known God’s plans for this little boy – and for his son – that would span the world and encompass more than 60 years of mission service.
Ivan grew and became a follower of Jesus, traveling to Japan in 1950 to share the good news. After 3 years there, he returned to the U.S. to attend seminary and was ordained in the Methodist Church. He and his new bride, Eleanor, returned to Japan in 1956, where they spent most of the rest of their lives serving as missionaries. Their five children were born and raised in Japan – four daughters and a son. Les was born in 1960 and spent most of his first 20 years in Japan.
God prepares a family
Les was educated through the Japanese public-school system; he was the first foreigner to graduate from Sendai First High School in 1980. When he was in elementary school, he announced one evening to his mother (while waiting for his dad, who was late coming home again) that he was “never going to be a missionary!” When the time came to choose a path in life, Les decided to pursue medicine to help others.
Meanwhile, in Ohio, Debbie, also born in 1960, grew up in Middletown in First Methodist Church. In 1967, Ivan Dornon visited that church and issued a challenge. He said it wasn’t enough anymore to send money to support missionaries – people needed to do more! A couple of creative men in the Middletown church got together and dreamed about a musical mission group traveling to Japan. When Ivan was approached with the idea, his response was something like, “When and how many?” Ivan was a great believer in building relationships between people. He knew that only by knowing and caring for others can we truly learn to live in peace in this world.
Debbie’s parents were in the first PROMISES (People Relating Our Mission in Service, Extension and Study) group that traveled to Japan in 1969. Debbie’s entire family traveled with the group back to Japan in 1976.
In 1981, when Debbie was in her senior year at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio studying music, Ivan approached her about coming to Japan as a Missionary Associate
(2 years) to teach English in the Student Center in Sendai where he was director. At the same time, Les was studying at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and he and Debbie had started dating.
Debbie decided to make her relationship with Les even more long distance by going to Japan to work at the Sendai Student Center from 1982 to 1984. It was a time of learning to rely on God in lonely times and a time of learning about the
culture that had shaped Les.
In 1984, Les and Debbie were married in Ohio – and Ivan liked to joke that the Middletown church not only supported them for many years financially, but also provided a wife for his son! Les did his Family Practice residency in Peoria, Illinois, (Methodist Medical Center) and their children Rachel and Luke were born there.