A Gentleman and a Gentle Man

Local historian Donald MacDonald passes away

By Michael Turton

The Hudson Highlands lost one of its most beloved citizens, Donald MacDonald, who died at age 90 on Tuesday (Jan. 19) at NewYork-Presbyterian/Hudson Valley Hospital in Cortlandt Manor.

Known for his love of local history, MacDonald served as historian for both the Town of Philipstown and Village of Cold Spring. For many years he educated residents about their community’s past through his column in the Putnam County News and Recorder. He was also a long time supporter of the Putnam History Museum.

But perhaps more than anything, MacDonald will be remembered as a kind man who had a twinkle in his eye; an unassuming man with a gentle manner who seemed not to possess a negative bone in his body.

Donald MacDonald (file photo by Michael Turton)

Donald MacDonald (file photo by Michael Turton)

Born in Peekskill in 1925 to Donald F. and Martha (Preston) MacDonald, Don was raised in Garrison and attended Haldane High School. He served in the U. S. Navy during World War II, mainly in the Panama Canal Zone. He worked with his father in the furniture refinishing business for 20 years, moving to Cold Spring in 1964. He began work with the maintenance department at BOCES’ Yorktown Heights Campus in 1968 and continued there until his retirement in 1987.

Ed and Robin Lockwood of Suffern always thought of MacDonald and his wife, Mary Ann (Nagy) MacDonald, as an uncle and aunt, although Mary was actually Ed’s cousin and godmother. “I knew Uncle Don for more than 55 years,” Lockwood said. “He was a peaceful man. I can’t remember him ever speaking in a cross way about anyone. He loved his little village of Cold Spring and its history.”

Lockwood fondly recalls going to a bowling alley many years ago with his parents and Donald and Mary. “I think it was their first date!” he said. “Now he’ll be buried next to the love of his life.” Mary died in 2006 and, until his health began to deteriorate, MacDonald walked to his wife’s grave in Cold Spring Cemetery every day.

A tip of the hat

Dorothy Carlton got to know the MacDonalds 15 years ago when they worked as groundskeepers at what is now Le Bouchon Restaurant. “Mr. MacDonald was like a gentleman from a bygone era,” said the Cold Spring resident. “He always greeted you with a tip of his hat, a smile and a kind word. He never had a bad word to say about people.” Carlton could not recall a conversation in which MacDonald failed to mention Mary.

Barbara Hobens, a former Philipstown resident and now Historian for the Town of Hyde Park, became friends with MacDonald nine years ago when she asked him to sign a copy of his book, A Ramble through the Hudson Highlands: A History in Pictures and the Writings of Donald H. MacDonald. She said that phone calls to him that were intended to be quick “often lasted an hour or more … as we yammered on about history.” She said of her friend’s death, “It was his time to leave … but there will be too many times that I will reach for the phone to call him. A finer man I will never know.”

A lasting impression

Ru Rauch of Garrison, former foreign correspondent for Time magazine, only knew MacDonald for a short time, but it made a lasting impression. “Don and I only met about a year ago, and a shared interest in journalism made us friends,” he said. “He was a very modest guy, but he knew a lot about life.” Rauch said one of MacDonald’s greatest attributes was that at age 90 he still liked most of his fellow human beings. “He had a quiet grace about him, a gentleness that I envied and will always remember.”

Although soft spoken, MacDonald was not one to mince words. In a 2010 interview with Philipstown.info, he was asked about his time at Haldane High School. “I quit in 10th grade,” he said. “I’m proud that 35 years later I got my GED. I worked like a sucker to get it!” He was equally candid about his lack of enthusiasm for modern technology. In the same interview, when asked if he owned a computer, cell phone or answering machine, he responded emphatically: “None of it! Why go to all the bother? I’m 85. I love doing my research my own way.”

Profound friendship

Perhaps no one appreciated knowing MacDonald more than Caryn Canova, his longtime friend. Canova helped with his care in recent years and was with him when he passed away peacefully on Tuesday. “It was the kind of profound friendship that comes along once in a lifetime,” she said.

MacDonald had a generosity of spirit and a love of community that transcends the mere study of history. He summed it up best himself in a profile by Christine Simek in the first issue of The Paper in June 2012 entitled Don MacDonald’s Passion for History: “I feel privileged to have lived here. I have a love for this place and I don’t like to keep it to myself. I like to share it.”

Donald H. MacDonald was laid to rest in Cold Spring Cemetery on Thursday, Jan. 21, next to Mary, after a service at St. Mary-in-the-Highlands Episcopal Church, where he was a lifelong member. Donations in MacDonald’s name may be made to St. Mary’s, 1 Chestnut St., Cold Spring, NY 10516.

MacDonald reads a poem, “I’ll Remember April, by Patricia Johnston and Don Raye, in memory of his wife, 2014

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