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SKC, family, friends, community honor Joe McDonald

PABLO — Michael “Mickey” O’Donnell had everyone in the audience close their eyes and relax. Then he asked folks to open their eyes and remember what they saw. 

“Nothing,” O’Donnell said,” That’s what Salish Kootenai College had, we had nothing — no money, no gym, no administration, no staff, but we had Joe and that was enough.”

O’Donnell, a grant writer, was the master of ceremonies for the party honoring Joe McDonald, President of Salish Kootenai College, on June 17 at, fittingly enough, the Joe McDonald Health and Fitness Center. 

McDonald will retire on June 30 from Salish and Kootenai College, which he masterminded and nurtured from a few classrooms and a small course list to averaging 1,100 students per quarter and offering 10 bachelor degree programs, 14 associate level programs and six certificate programs.

For anybody but Joe McDonald, June 17 might have gone to his head. First, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council declared June 17 Joe McDonald Day. Then the gym had been transformed into a giant banquet hall for about 500 people who attended the bash. Jack Gladstone and Rob Quist warmed up the crowd and dedicated special songs to McDonald, the Great Scots bagpipers escorted McDonald and his family to their seats. Then there were four hours of speeches honoring and praising McDonald plus gifts, hugs and handshakes.

Several McDonald descriptors kept popping up throughout the afternoon: humble, accomplished, educator, family oriented, fun, nationally recognized, visionary.  

CSKT Tribal Chairman Bud Moran said, “If I read a list of Joe’s honors, coaching and teaching, we’d be here all night.”

Moran listed Joe’s lessons as a coach and an administrator. One lesson is being willing to take risks. The SKC gym and dorms are the fruit of Joe’s risk taking. Another lesson is “along the way you gotta have fun” so there is the Silver Fox Golf Course. 

“Probably most important,” Moran added, “is your family time.” 

Education has always been an important facet of Joe’s life, too. Jay Preston, Ronan Telephone Company President said he was a high school freshman when Joe became principal at Ronan High School, “a fearsome authority figure, one we avoided at all cost.”

However, Preston said, “Joe had a calm and very calming way of teaching kids and getting them to perform at their best.”

SKC Vice-President Carmen Taylor also remembered Joe’s days at RHS. At that time Taylor was an Upward Bound follow-up counselor at the University of Montana. Upward Bound serves high school students from low-income families and high school students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree. Taylor came to RHS on her trips around western Montana. 

“My first impression of Joe was that he believed in our students,” Taylor said, adding that not everyone did.

Taylor also mentioned Joe’s vision for SKC. In 1994; Joe’s goals were four-year degrees, student housing and better physical education facilities. 

“Guess what, we have them all,” Taylor said, adding that we all learn so much from Joe, including gifts of generosity and diplomacy. 

Executive Director of the American Indian College Fund Rick Williams told the crowd Joe had served on the AICF board for 12 years. The kinds of things Joe does for SKC, Williams explained, he also does all across the nation for other Indian colleges.

When Joe was chair for AICF in 2000, they wanted to try a new sort of fundraising campaign, and Joe said go ahead. The organization raised an unprecedented $50 million. 

“Joe’s strength has always been that he knows how to lead people,” Williams said.

Alice Oechsli, SKC Vice President Emeritus, agreed but added, “I think that the most outstanding thing about Joe is his humility, graciousness and generosity.” 

Oechsli also said if you travel anywhere in the United States and say you’re from Montana, someone will ask you if you know Joe McDonald.

“Everybody wants to be Joe’s friend,” Oechsli said.

When it was Joe’s turn to speak, he said, “I’ve got to retire. I just can’t continue to be nice and patient and humble.” 

Then he continued to be nice as he thanked all the folks who helped put on his retirement party, from the kitchen crew to the faculty to the grounds crew. 

Approximately 500 of Joe’s friends showed up to wish him and his wife Sherri well, share a buffet dinner and then dance the night away at the Elk’s Club in Polson where “it was standing room only,” according to Anita Big Springs, Joe’s administrative assistant.

And soon Joe and Sherri will be able to drive off into the sunset or maybe the golf course in a new Red F150 Ford pickup with license plates that read SKC 1.

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