Lee and Claire celebrate 70 years of marriage

“It would probably be an exaggeration to say it was love at first sight, but it was pretty close to it,” Lee McDonald says of the first time he laid eyes on his wife Claire. 

The McDonalds, who celebrated their 70th anniversary last weekend, took time Tuesday to talk to the COURIER about their lasting love and a shared life spent mainly in the City of Trees.

In January of 1944 Mr. McDonald paid his first visit to Pomona College, at the request of a former high school classmate from back home in Oregon. Lois had an ulterior motive in inviting Lee—then 19, in training with the Army Air Corps and stationed at the Santa Ana Army Air Base—to visit the Claremont school. He was tall, and she had hopes he might hit it off with a statuesque friend named Shirley Jane.

Sparks failed to fly between Lee and Shirley. He did, however, notice another girl who lived across the hall from Lois. “Here’s someone I’d like to meet,” Lee said to Claire, 17, by way of introduction.

Claire thought the visitor was attractive, an impression that was strengthened when he joined the ladies for breakfast the following morning. “It was his personality,” she explained. “He entertained all of us, telling stories.”

The future Mrs. McDonald, who was 5’11” herself, didn’t want to step on Shirley Jane’s right of first refusal, but she had some choice words for Lee. “Next time you come, bring a tall man like you,” she suggested.

Mr. McDonald soon returned to the school, this time bringing along a fellow soldier to meet Claire. His buddy, however, didn’t meet the height requirement. Besides, it was Lee who was smitten with the Pomona College student. “I told her, ‘I have canvassed the 20,000 cadets presently at Santa Ana Army Air Base and I didn’t find anyone taller than me,’” he said. 

By Mr. McDonald’s third visit, Claire agreed to give him a chance rather than waiting for another tall candidate. “They walked all over Claremont talking. Clearly, they had a ton to say to each other,” their daughter Alison shared.

They began exchanging a flurry of letters and in one of his missives, Lee asked if he could visit her at her family home in Palos Verdes. He hitchhiked there and managed to make a good impression on both Claire and her family. “I laughed at his jokes. That was one of the things he liked,” Mrs. McDonald said.

It didn’t take long before the pair decided to get married. First, however, they had to wait for the war to end. Mr. McDonald was being groomed to be co-pilot in a B-24 bomber. He had asked to be stationed in Tulare, as it was the closest base to Los Angeles and Claire.

Once a fledgling pilot had undertaken 13 hours of flight training, it was time to make a solo flight. If the flight was unsuccessful, he would be discharged from the Army Air Corps and assigned to the army infantry. Everyone was gripped by the fear of “washing out.” 

At Tulare’s Rankin Field, Mr. McDonald was under the tutelage of a civilian with the last name Zirhan who was “caustic but with a heart of gold.” He was getting close to his 13 hours when Zirhan suggested they fly to an airstrip along Highway 99. Mr. McDonald took the controls and made a sub-par landing. 

“I don’t care if you kill yourself, but you’re not going to kill me,” Zirhan said before adjourning to get a cup of coffee.

Lee got back up in the air and made a beautiful landing. “It was the luck of the innocent,” Mr. McDonald said. He looked over and saw Zirhan in the window of the coffee shop, giving him the thumbs up.

Mr. McDonald expected to be deployed as a pilot in Japan. In August of 1945, however, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan’s surrender was formally signed on September 2, bringing an end to the war.

In November of 1945, Lee became a free man. He and Claire were wed at a Redondo Beach church on August 17, 1946. He was 21 and she was 19.

Then it was time for Mr. McDonald, who had attended one year at the University of Oregon, to pick up his education. “Without the GI bill, I would surely not be able to go as far as I did,” he said.

He was a bit of a smart aleck when he penned a letter saying why he wanted to go to Pomona College.  “I said, ‘My wife goes to Pomona College and she won’t leave.’”

After Mr. McDonald graduated from Pomona with a degree in political science, he headed for UCLA to pursue his master’s degree. While there, he and his bride welcomed their first child, a daughter named Mary.

Upon graduation, Mr. McDonald was offered a fellowship at Harvard University. They headed for Cambridge, where their family grew with the addition of another daughter, Alison.

Once he finished his PhD, Mr. McDonald was in the market for a teaching position when he got a call from Pomona College offering him a one-year job as a replacement for a professor. “It was pure joy,” Mrs. McDonald said of their return to California.” The weather was nice.”

The next year, another member of the government department became assistant dean at the then Claremont Graduate School and Lee was asked to replace him. Eventually, he found himself on the tenure track.

The family settled in Claremont and welcomed four more children, Julie, Devon, Tom and Paul. Tragedy touched the family in 1957 when Devon died at age 2 during a flu epidemic. Their daughter Julie would later die of ovarian cancer at age 42 and they lost their son Tom to colon cancer at age 51.

Most of the time, however, life was a pleasure.

Mr. and Mrs. McDonald enjoyed an active social life, which included membership in a singing group as well as gatherings with a circle of politically minded friends. These included Democratic Club stalwarts like Leonard and Helen Jean Munter, Steve and Connie Zetterberg and late COURIER publisher Martin Weinberger and his wife Janis. Mrs. McDonald eventually got involved in politics herself, serving a dozen years, 1970 to 1982, on the Claremont City Council. She ran for congress in 1984. 

Lee and Claire were also part of a play-reading group that convened for 35 years. Once, when Mrs. McDonald revealed she was expecting her youngest, a certain member of the play-reading group confronted her, asking Claire how she dared to add to her already sizeable brood. She was doing nothing to help overpopulation.

Claire had a quick answer: “I said our kids are going to solve the world’s problems.”

One of the McDonalds’ happiest memories is a year’s sabbatical when they lived in Athens. When a delegation of Pomona College students and faculty arrived in Greece, Lee and Claire joined them as they toured the country.

The Mt. San Antonio Gardens retirement community, where the McDonalds moved in 2003, was a site of interest last Saturday when about 40 friends and family members gathered to celebrate the couple’s 70th anniversary.

One couple sang songs popular during the era of the McDonalds’ courtship, and their daughter Mary sang a song she had written for her parents. There was cake and time to share their philosophy on a long and fruitful marriage.

“You either like each other or you don’t. You’re very lucky to be happy together as we are. I can’t imagine doing it without liking each other,” Mrs. McDonald said.

—Sarah Torribio



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