Char-Koosta News

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June 24, 2010

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An era comes to an end

Joe McDonald retires from SKC

By B.L. Azure

Joe and Sherri McDonald were led to their seats of honor by members of the Great Scott Pipes. (B.L. Azure photo)
Joe and Sherri McDonald were led to their seats of honor by members of the Great Scott Pipes. (B.L. Azure photo)

PABLO They say all good things must come to an end. And so it goes with Dr. Joe McDonald, founder of Salish Kootenai College. He will step down June 30th as the only president the educational institution has ever had.

Although his tenure at the helm of SKC will end, McDonald's enduring legacy will never see the dark of night. Its radiance will serve as a guiding light - as it has in the past - for generations of people in quest of knowledge and understanding. Joe McDonald is a one of a kind man for the ages: an educator whose gentle demeanor draped a resolve and will of steel.

On Thursday hundreds and hundreds of well-wishers joined in the celebration of his tenure as the guiding light of SKC and the national tribal college movement in the building named in his honor: the Joe McDonald Health and Athletic Center. It is a fitting monument for the man who used athletics to further his education.

Montana State Senator Carol Williams, D-Missoula, came to the rez to honor Dr. Joe McDonald. (B.L. Azure photo)
Montana State Senator Carol Williams, D-Missoula, came to the rez to honor Dr. Joe McDonald. (B.L. Azure photo)

People came from near and far to pay homage to the man who dedicated his adult life to education and the promotion of understanding the other between Indians and non-Indians.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council proclaimed Thursday Joe McDonald Day.

McDonald, 77, with wife Sherri on his arm and family close behind descended the stairs to the gymnasium floor where they were joined by The Great Scotts Pipes who then escorted Joe and Sherri to the seats of honor next to the podium.

For more than two hours contemporaries and those he influenced positively stepped to the lectern to voice their respect for the man and to praise his life's achievements. His physical legacy is Salish Kootenai College. It is the learning institution he shepherded from an idea to inception to realization to expansion. Much like the Big Bang Theory of the Universe, McDonald set off an education movement at SKC that gravity can't harness.

Vic Charlo and Opal Cajune came to honor the Dr. Joe and Sherri McDonald at his retirement festivities. (B.L. Azure photo)
Vic Charlo and Opal Cajune came to honor the Dr. Joe and Sherri McDonald at his retirement festivities. (B.L. Azure photo)

"Before Joe, we had nothing," said Bob Fouty, SKC Board of Directors chairman. There wasn't any money, campus, classrooms, faculty, staff or students. "But we had Joe and that was enough. The greatest lesson he taught me was patience."

And patience it took to go from nothing to become the flagship institution of tribal collages nationally with the present serene 130-acre campus and infrastructure. It took patience to go from a zero-dollar budget to an annual operational budget of $26 million and a student body of approximately 1,100, a faculty of 58 and operational staff of 181. It took patience to establish an $8 million endowment from the initial $5 seed.

CSKT Council Chair E.T. "Bud" Moran presents Dr. McDonald with a framed proclamation of Joe McDonald Day. (B.L. Azure photo)
CSKT Council Chair E.T. "Bud" Moran presents Dr. McDonald with a framed proclamation of Joe McDonald Day. (B.L. Azure photo)

Chairman E.T. "Bud" Moran, who served on the SKC Board of Directors for 10 years, told those gathered that he learned something from McDonald at each board meeting.

"He told me to remember whom you serve and why you are here," Moran said, adding that McDonald told him to have fun.

Moran acknowledged some of McDonald's accomplishments but said it would take all day to laud them all. And there was a long line of people waiting for their turn to express their gratitude.

Maggie Goode takes time to read a bit about the man of the hour Joe McDonald. (B.L. Azure photo)
Maggie Goode takes time to read a bit about the man of the hour Joe McDonald. (B.L. Azure photo)

Chair of the SKC Foundation Jay Preston who attended Ronan High School when McDonald was the principal said McDonald opened his eyes to the unique culture of the tribal people of the Flathead Reservation.

"As a child in the 1960s I really didn't know that I was living on an Indian reservation," Preston said, citing that Indian history was not a part of the curriculum at the high school. "Joe created a program that reflected the multi-diversity of the reservation. Salish Kootenai College is the rebirth of tribal culture here. There is now a better picture of our shared history."

Preston said that the late Doug Allard, who served many years as president of the SKC Board of Directors, rightfully said that Salish Kootenai College was the finest achievement of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Joe McDonald is Salish Kootenai College and Salish Kootenai College is Joe McDonald.

"His legacy will live on beyond all of our years here," Preston said.

Dr. Joe McDonald thanked all in attendance for making his day and to thank all those he worked along side of for making his career special. (B.L. Azure photo)
Dr. Joe McDonald thanked all in attendance for making his day and to thank all those he worked along side of for making his career special. (B.L. Azure photo)

SKC Vice-President Carmen Taylor said McDonald believed in the abilities of his students and had realized a four-point goal. He established several four-year degree programs, built student housing, established an art program and built a physical education facility at the college through his leadership.

"Joe and Sherri are so woven into the fabric of SKC that they will always be a part of SKC," Taylor said.

"We appreciate the great work that Joe and Sherri have done," said Dave Gipp, president of the United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota. "Salish Kootenai College is the national model for tribal colleges."

"Joe always gave credit for everything he accomplished to Sherri. She motivated him his entire career," said Jim Shanley, president of Fort Peck Community College. "Joe's gift is the love and compassion he has for everyone he works with."

"What Joe has done here is what Joe has done for other colleges," said Rick Williams, executive director of the American Indian College Fund. "He is a very special kind of leader. When you look back you'll see that these past 33 years have been the most important time in the Tribes' history."

After more than two hours of listening McDonald stepped to the lectern to thank all in attendance and to praise those who have worked along side of him at SKC.

Joe and Sherri probably had calloused hands after touching skin with the hundreds of well-wishers. (B.L. Azure photo)
Joe and Sherri probably had calloused hands after touching skin with the hundreds of well-wishers. (B.L. Azure photo)

"It's been a wonderful thing to be involved in," he said. "I can't claim much. I provided the support and let them (faculty and staff) take the lead. I always figured 180 heads are better than one."

Those 180 heads and countless students are better off because of one head guided by one compassioned-filled heart.

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