By Stew Slater, Staff reporter
Refereeing newsroom fisticuffs in a just-joined-Confederation Newfoundland, and holding a toilet cleaning brush while greeting potential Bed and Breakfast visitors in St. Marys seem like two events more than a world apart.
And the fact that former St. Marys Journal Argus columnist Don Macdonald was the principal actor in both these scenes speaks, definitively, to the breadth of experience which filled his life of almost 93 years.
Don Macdonald, author for nearly two decades of “The Jaundiced Eye,” passed away in Victoria on June 30.
“I was with him. I think he had a slight stroke on his right hand side,” related Macdonald’s wife of 27 years, Judith Donaldson, in a telephone interview with the Journal Argus last week. “I just cradled his head and sang him some of the songs he loved (the World War Two-era ‘Show me the Way to go Home,’ Donaldson said later; and ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’), and there was a great expression of peacefulness on his face.”
Macdonald began writing his current affairs-themed column for the Journal Argus not long after relocating with Donaldson to St. Marys from Toronto. He had retired from 43 years of work with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), most of it in the television news department based out of Toronto. He ended his career as Acting Head of TV Current Affairs for the publicly funded broadcaster.
“But his real love was radio,” Donaldson commented. And he always held a special place in his heart for the Atlantic provinces.
The obituary for Macdonald in the Globe and Mail newspaper described the New Brunswick native as “a self-professed ‘obsessive Canadian’ (who) was passionate about working for the CBC.”
Speaking to the Journal Argus, Donaldson related the stories her late husband — to whom she always referred as by his army nickname of “DJ,” which denotes his middle name, Jardine — told of first finding his way into employment at CBC Radio.
His early years were spent in Hartland, but his family soon began moving around as his father followed elusive job opportunities. “It was very tough in the Depression,” Donaldson said. “DJ has gone through all that.”
He spent five years with the Canadian army’s reserve cadets, eventually being called to England near the end of the war. Decades later, he was reluctant to be referred to as a “veteran” because he never saw action. “But I said to him, ‘you served your country. You are a veteran’,” his wife explained. And she admitted she’s now relieved she was able to convince him; the support he then received from Veterans’ Affairs made it a lot easier to provide the years of care required as Macdonald battled the advancement of dementia.
(Donaldson is quick to point out he never lost his intellect; right until the end, he enjoyed listening to people like the CBC’s Rex Murphy. But his short-term memory declined significantly.)
DJ graduated from teacher’s college, but ended up with a part-time job at the CBC in Saint John, writing jingles for ads. One day, when he was suffering from a cold, a producer heard his deep voice and decided he might be ideal for on-air work. That led to a transfer to Halifax.
By the time Newfoundland was set to join Confederation in 1949, Macdonald had developed the reputation as a man of reason in a newsroom environment sometimes fraught with emotion. CBC executives figured the newly-established service in the new province would be worse than most. So they called on Macdonald to oversee its implementation.
“You had Joey Smallwood basically coming to blows with opponents in public, so DJ always said that it wasn’t surprising that there were fisticuffs on regular occasions in the newsroom. At least that’s how he described it,” Donaldson said.
She says he regretted being called away from “The Rock” (and away from radio), but knew he must accept CBC television’s calling when he transferred to Toronto. So, all those years later, it was a great relief to be able to retire to the Stonetown.
“He was a small-town boy. He loved it in St. Marys. We loved it there.”
His column was always a light into the political worlds of Ottawa and beyond, often explored through excerpts from the many national and international newspapers Macdonald loved to peruse for inspiration.
Macdonald was also well-recognized for his community contributions, including volunteering with Community Living St. Marys and Area.
The well-known duo were “snowbirds” of a sort for several years, relocating to the milder climate of Vancouver Island during the winter while spending their summers operating a bed and breakfast in St. Marys. It was during that time that Donaldson remembers scolding her husband for absentmindedly opening the door to potential guests while holding a toilet brush.
Listening to her over the phone, however, the love Donaldson clearly holds for her husband flows out almost as rhythmically as those final songs she shared at Macdonald’s bedside on June 30. It’s encapsulated best, perhaps, in the words she submitted to the Globe and Mail for his obituary:
“Ever a true gentleman, DJ was also a person whose generosity, patience and wisdom was admired by all who knew him. Despite his great intellect, he always had time for people from all walks of life, treating everyone with respect and without judgment. His enormous warmth (and his soft chuckle) will be truly missed.”
Don Macdonald is survived by four sons, five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.