Donna Halstead celebrates every sunrise knowing she’s lucky to be alive. The first and only female to represent District 10 on the Dallas City Council contracted COVID-19 in February 2020 — long before the virus achieved pandemic status and America shuttered schools and businesses. Twelve doctors and a host of nurses and technicians were assigned to her then-mysterious case, but none could determine what was making her sick. She spent five weeks at Baylor Hospital and one week on a ventilator before turning the corner, and she still grapples with long COVID, which leads to fatigue and other symptoms.
“It was the most frightening time of my life,” she says. “I’m incredibly blessed. I feel so at peace to have survived it and to know that somehow, somewhere there’s a reason God left me here.”
Halstead served on the council from 1991-96, becoming an expert on the region’s transportation challenges. She pushed for DART to include Wildcat Station at the Lake Highlands Town Center in its master plan, and played a major role in squelching privatization of the President George Bush Tollway.
She led the Dallas Citizens Council for 15 years, becoming the organization’s longest-serving president, and founded the Coalition of Homeowners Associations to block a 20-story office building at Skillman and Audelia. Being a female was never an issue with voters — she earned 83% of the vote over three opponents in her first race — but she sometimes faced challenges from others around town.
“There were a couple of people who thought, because I was a female, they could hoodwink me from time to time. They found out differently. I did what I thought was right and frustrated the heck out of those folks,” she says.
There’s a shortage of housing in Dallas today, and apartments are filling as quickly as they’re built in Lake Highlands and across town. During her tenure though, the city and the school district battled with landlords who lured tenants with promises of short-term free rent and encouraged families to change neighborhoods and schools frequently.
“I was the first council member to have gotten an apartment slum torn down — it used to be a horrible property at the corner of Plano Road and Walnut Hill. The owner made the mistake of leaving it vacant too long, and I used an automatic provision that allows a council member to call for rezoning.”
It wasn’t long before the 100-unit eyesore, often the site of criminal activity, was scraped and storage units were built in its place.
Halstead says she isn’t anti-apartment. Now that she and husband Fred have mostly retired to their Cedar Creek lake house, they keep an apartment at the Lake Highlands Town Center for visits with family and friends.
“The problem with apartments is that many are owned by out-of-state REITS (real estate investment trusts) or other investment groups which don’t pay attention to the details.”
The key to Lake Highlands’ success, she says, is the way neighbors frequently help neighbors — tutoring children, offering rides to school and welcoming refugees.
“We’ve often been described as the Beaver Cleaver Community of Dallas, where children play in the street and neighbors invest time in programs to improve the community. It’s a culture of caring. We are a very close-knit community that cares about our children, cares about quality of life and will do what we need to do to protect both.”
“What I’ve always loved about Lake Highlands is that it’s very unpretentious,” Halstead says. “It’s a community that embraces its differences. That’s a big asset. For a community to be a community, you cannot have an ‘us and them’ mentality. It just doesn’t work.”
She has three granddaughters, and is intentional about teaching them to be trailblazers too. Ellie, daughter of Julie and Scott Peek, will head to The University of Texas next year. Ashley Peek is a budding artist. Allie Kate, daughter of Amy and Freddie Halstead, is at White Rock Elementary.
“I tell them they can accomplish anything they want. The future is wide open for them. And I discuss issues with them. We talk current events like they are budding adults, because they are,” she says.