PABLO - After hearing for more than two hours what a great guy he is, Salish Kootenai College President Joe McDonald took the microphone, chuckled a bit, and told several hundred people he had no choice now but to follow through on his retirement plans.

"I can't continue to be nice and patient and humble anymore," McDonald joked.

Those were just three of countless words used repeatedly Thursday to describe the 77-year-old McDonald, who steps down June 30 not as the only president the tribal college has ever had, just the only one almost anyone remembers.

There from the start, McDonald has led SKC from its humble beginnings in the 1970s, when it offered a few college credits to a handful of students using borrowed classrooms across the Flathead Indian Reservation, to what it is today.

And that, said Rick Williams, executive director of the American Indian College Fund, is "the finest tribal college in the nation."

"Salish Kootenai College," added David Gipp, president of the United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota, "is the national model for tribal colleges."

Situated on a tree-covered 130-acre campus here, Salish Kootenai College offers bachelor's degrees in eight fields, associate's degrees in 14 more, and certificates in seven trade and vocational areas.

It has 53 buildings, more than 1,100 students, a faculty of 58, 181 employees, a $26 million annual budget and an $8 million endowment started with a $5 bill from McDonald.

"Before Joe, we had nothing," said Bob Fouty, chairman of SKC's board of directors. "We had no money, no campus, no classrooms, no faculty, no staff, no students. But we had Joe, and that was enough."

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Retiring University of Montana President George Dennison, who attended Thursday's celebration, called McDonald "the father of tribal colleges in Montana."

McDonald led, in part, by not getting in the way.

"I can't claim much," McDonald insisted at Thursday's celebration - held, appropriately, in the campus building already named in his honor, the Joe McDonald Health and Fitness Center.

"I let them take the lead," he added, motioning to the many faculty and staff in the audience. "I always figured 180 heads are better than one. I tried not to be the type of 34-year administrator whose answer was always, ‘No, we tried that before.' "

July 1, he noted, will be the first day since 1951 that he will have been unemployed.

Since he started grade school in his native St. Ignatius in 1938, McDonald said that every fall since he's "gone back to school," either as a student, teacher or administrator, and that next fall would be no different, even if it means coming full-circle and enrolling in classes again.

McDonald already had a long career in education, as a teacher, coach and administrator in the high school ranks, and as a college basketball coach, before helping to start SKC. That career took he and his wife Sherri from Plevna to Miles City to Hamilton to Ronan, as well as stops in Missoula (where he was the University of Montana freshman basketball coach) and Havre (as head basketball coach at what was then Northern Montana College).

He's said before that the most rewarding aspect of his career has been "seeing the change in families when education becomes important in their lives."

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CSKT Chairman E.T. "Bud" Moran told the crowd that his days on the college board of directors had taught him what he called "Joe's Lessons."

The 2,700-seat gymnasium named for McDonald, and the nearby performing arts center named for Victor Charlo and Johnny Arlee, were perfect examples of McDonald's belief that you should be willing to take great risks to achieve big dreams.

SKC's dormitories, Moran went on, demonstrated McDonald's commitment to "remembering who we serve and why we are here."

"He also said you've got to have fun," Moran added, "and lo and behold, we have a golf course."

After a night of many presentations, of everything from plaques to beautiful blankets, McDonald was also given a brand new Ford F-150 pickup with the license plate "SKC 1."

"I hoped I'd get a pickup," he admitted afterward, "but I was getting so many blankets I thought I was going to have to buy my own."

Last to speak before McDonald was Alice Oechsli, SKC vice president emeritus.

"I asked to be one of the last speakers," she said, "because I figured that everything that could be said about Joe would have been said by now. But now I know that everything that can be said couldn't be said, because there's so much to say."

"Humility, graciousness, generosity," Oechsli said, adding to the long list of adjectives.

"Joe is so balanced, and secure in who he is," she said. "He's had his detractors, but he never turned his head. He had his goal, he always moved toward it, and that's how he accomplished this miracle."

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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