People who know Ethel MacDonald might not believe this, but she once considered herself a political conservative.

She even voted for Barry Goldwater, a founding father of the modern conservative movement.

That was then.

Today, she uses words like "flaming" and "rabid" to describe her liberalism. In the last presidential election, she backed Dennis Kucinich because he was the candidate who most stood for the core value she reaches for today: peace.

MacDonald, retired teacher of English and French and a Missoula resident, is the 2005 Peacemaker of the Year, to be honored at a celebration on May 1.

"One of my favorite songs has the words, 'Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me,' " she said Monday.

"I find that hard to live up to. I'm a peace activist, but I'm not sure I'm a peacemaker. Being a peacemaker is a lot harder."

MacDonald was selected because she's had such a strong role in shaping and supporting Missoula's Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, said Steve McArthur, a member of the center's coordinating council, on which MacDonald sits.

MacDonald has also worked tirelessly to improve and protect Missoula as a place to live, from supporting environmental and open-space campaigns to fighting for civil rights and free speech.

"She's very tenacious, energetic, a self-starter," McArthur said. "I have energy, but I don't have the energy she does."

McArthur calls her "decisive." MacDonald calls herself "combative."

Keeping peace during the everyday conflicts of boards, committees and friendships is sometimes the biggest personal challenge, she said.

But she's less challenged elsewhere in her life. She's long "lived lightly" in the world, consuming little ("I learned at my mother's knees to be frugal," she said), running almost every day (she's only missed one River Bank Run since 1974), and riding her bike nearly any place she needs to go, day or night, year-round.

"I do have a car," she said. "It's a 1986 Subaru that only gets 24 miles to the gallon. The last time it was out of the garage was to pick up my friend at the airport the Tuesday after Easter."

MacDonald, 67, said she wasn't too involved during the Vietnam era, but in the late 1970s became concerned about U.S. policies in Central America.

She's been a peace activist ever since.

She was discouraged by President Bush's easy re-election and by how many people back the war in Iraq, "a war that has caused so much damage to another country and takes so much away from our own country."

"It is hard for me to understand people who can just ignore this," she said. "The fact that people could vote him in tells me that they don't want to know what we're doing, that their primary concern is to keep what they have.

"The fact that people continue to drive everywhere in big cars, to waste materials, tells me … we have so much and we want to keep it. It is basic selfishness."

Too many children have died in Iraq, said MacDonald, who said she is inspired by the work of international peace activist Kathy Kelly, who visited Missoula last month.

"Kathy says, 'We catch courage from one another.' She is so courageous. … Her hope, and all of her work, is for the children who are so hurt by war," said MacDonald. "I think we should pay attention to people like her, people who have been there and who have seen the devastation we've caused."

MacDonald, mother of three grown sons, said she opposes U.S. sanctions that affect women and children in various parts of the world, and fears that bombs and weapons left behind in places like Iraq pollute the environment and cause health problems for other countries.

Newspaper and TV journalists do little to help America understand problems of the larger world, she said. "We don't see enough pictures of Iraqi children and bodies. If we saw more pictures, maybe we'd care more. … We bury our heads in the sand."

Her goals in the coming year include working hard at the peace center to enlist new members, to build education programs and to enlarge the center's role in supporting peace around the world.

It's a demanding to-do list, but MacDonald is in excellent shape, given her running and biking - and despite a weakness for chocolate.

"I can outrun my children," she said.

"She's very, very committed," McArthur said. "She lives her passion. Sometimes she falls short, but she recognizes when she does and admits it. She's an inspiration."

Peace party

A free, public celebration honoring Ethel MacDonald is from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, May 1, at Christ the King Church, 1400 Gerald Ave.

A quilt made especially for MacDonald by the Missoula Peace Quilters will be displayed, along with quilts made for previous winners.

Raffle tickets for various prizes - artwork, wine, trips, CDs, drum lessons, gift certificates and more - are available at the celebration.

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