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‘Uncle Don’ a friendly face in New Haven

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By Kacie Goode

Don Koch may be a “brought-in” to the community of New Haven, but the Iowa native fits in just like family, and it’s not hard to see why.

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“He’s as close as a brother,” said Wayne Cundiff, Koch’s employer. “He’s watched my kids grow up from babies, so he’s like family in a lot of ways.”

Koch celebrated his 80th birthday on Saturday at Barry Hall, surrounded by relatives and residents alike. Those who know Koch say he is a staple in the town of about 900.

“He’s easygoing, friendly, and he treats everybody the same,” said Linda Mattingly, a New Haven city commissioner. Mattingly and her husband, Fred, who plays cards with Koch on Fridays, attended the weekend birthday party along with a few other longtime community members.

“He’s a really good guy, a good friend and a good neighbor,” said Frank Hall, who lives next door to Koch. “He’s worked hard all his life, and he’s helped the community. He was a volunteer firefighter for a while. Don is just an all-around good guy.”

Koch came to Kentucky while serving in the U.S. Army in the 1960s. He started at boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and then came to Fort Knox, where he went through turret mechanic school and learned to work on tanks.

One night, he and a few of his buddies went out to a restaurant, Jerry’s, in Radcliff, and a car of young women wrecked into them in the parking lot. That’s when Don first met Dorothy Masterson.

“We hit it off from the first date,” he said with a smile, recalling the night. He described Dorothy as a “good ol’ country girl” and it wasn’t long before the two got married and started a family.

“I lost her 19 years ago to cancer,” Koch said.

After meeting Dorothy, Don decided to move his life to New Haven, her hometown, and he quickly fell in love with the community.  

“All the people here are good,” he said. “It’s been a real good life here.”

And his New Haven roots are only growing deeper.

Koch stayed at Fort Knox for about a year-and-a-half until his service ended, and he went on to work a while for a whiskey distributor in Bardstown and then for nearly two decades on the Pottinger Farm, owned at the time by Butler Pottinger.

When Pottinger passed away in 2007, Koch went back to mechanic work at Wayne-O’s garage on Center Street.

“I’ve been with this crazy crew ever since,” he said.

At Wayne-O’s, Koch does a little bit of everything: changing and fixing tires, working on brakes, changing oil.

“I like mechanic work,” he said. “I always did.”

It was at Wayne-O’s — through a case of mistaken identity — that Koch got his nickname of “Uncle Don,” now even sewn into his uniform, and where he has been a friendly face for many over the years.

“He’s been a big plus for here, not just working here but with the people,” said Cundiff, who has owned the garage for 23 years. “The people love him. He’s very accommodating.”

Cundiff said if it wasn’t for Koch and fellow employee Scott Bartley, he doesn’t know where the business would be.

“We are just like a little family. We’ve got each other’s backs,” he said. “It’s not a job, we enjoy what we do.”

Koch is also appreciative of the companionship he has at the garage.

“He’s a hell of a good boss,” Koch said of Cundiff. “Me and him, we have developed a real good friendship.”

Even at 80 and being a diabetic for about 30 years, Koch said he isn’t ready to retire.

“Not until they got to get a wheelchair and wheel me in here,” he laughed.

But he does plan to slow down a little. 

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Don Koch lives in New Haven with his companion of several years, Martha Kelty. Don and his late wife had four children together, Christy, Dorothy May, Dino and David. Don has nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.