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Obituary: Lee Cameron McDonald

Distinguished, award-winning Pomona College professor, U.S. Army veteran, great-grandfather

Lee Cameron McDonald, a resident of Claremont since the late 1940s, died December 29 of natural causes brought on by old age. His children and grandchildren were with him in his last days. He would have turned 97 in February.

Lee McDonald was a professor of government and political theory at Pomona College from 1952 to 1990. He was dean of Pomona College from 1970 to 1975 and taught graduate seminars at the Claremont Graduate School, now Claremont Graduate University, until 2000. He and his wife Claire, who just celebrated her 95th birthday on December 28, raised five children in Claremont.  They celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary in August, 2021.

Lee was born in Salem, Oregon on February 22, 1925. He was the only child of Lyman McDonald, a rural mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, and Mabel Duncan McDonald, an elementary school teacher. He grew up during the Depression, but both his parents were hardworking and he had a stable upbringing. He took to music at a young age and learned to play the trombone, baritone horn and trumpet.

As a student in junior high he was asked to join the high school band because they needed a trumpet player. He said the schools were close together, so he would walk over to the high school from the junior high and ended up playing in the high school band for six years instead of the usual four. He also loved to sing and found every opportunity to sing throughout his life.

He was drafted into the U.S. Army during his freshman year at the University of Oregon as soon as he turned 18. The year was 1943. He left school mid-year and reported for duty to Ft. Lewis in Washington state. From there, he applied to the Army Air Corps and spent the rest of the war being trained as a fighter pilot. It was when he was stationed at the Santa Ana Air Base that he visited a Salem High School friend at Pomona College. There he met Claire Kingman. She was 17 and he was just 19. They struck up a friendship and wrote to each other for the duration of the war. They married in August of 1946. He joined Claire at Pomona and graduated from Pomona College in 1948.

From there, using the GI Bill, he earned a master’s degree in political science from UCLA and then a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He wrote his dissertation on Reinhold Neibuhr, an American theologian who commented on public affairs and politics. Studying Neibuhr’s ideas combined his interests in religion and politics. Upon graduation from Harvard in 1952, he was offered a position back at Pomona College to teach government. The couple were both thrilled to return to Claremont. They moved with their two young daughters and proceeded to make their life in Claremont, eventually raising five children in town.

Mr. McDonald won the Pomona College Wig Distinguished Professor Award twice, in 1968 and 1989. The Wig award is the highest honor bestowed on Pomona faculty and recognizes exceptional teaching, concern for students and service to the college and community.

After he retired, he and Mrs. McDonald both won the Pomona College Alumni Service Award (2009) recognizing their commitment and ongoing volunteer service to the school.

“To say that Lee loved Pomona College and teaching is an understatement,” his family shared. “He once wrote that he learned from his high school band teacher that being a good teacher   meant being encouraging and positive with students. His band teacher was frequently angry at the students for not playing well. He said he vowed at that time to be a kind and supportive teacher. This he succeeded in doing.”

His students have written to him for years: “He invited me to take his seminar and talked to me often about political theory,” one wrote. “He was a major reason I went into the field. He was so thoughtful, listened so closely and was just so kind. I’ll never forget it.” Another student wrote, “Taking a class from Lee McDonald taught me to think.” Other students have thanked him years later for helping them get an internship or other special opportunity or for writing a wonderful letter of recommendation.

He loved wrestling with complex ideas. He wrote a textbook, Western Political Theory,  publishing the first part of it in 1962, later following with a complete text covering political philosophers from ancient to modern in 1968. His textbook was popular and used for many years in colleges. In his elder years, he had three small statuettes of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. He often remarked that besides looking at the pictures of his wife, children and grandchildren that surrounded his desk, he enjoyed looking at and thinking about his “three Greek philosophers.”

He also published many articles over the years in academic journals. His topics included myth, religion, politics, private ethics and civic virtue. He and Claire spent a year in Greece in the early 1980s on sabbatical where he deepened his understanding of those “three Greek philosophers.”

During his years as dean of the college at Pomona, he enjoyed working closely with President David Alexander and other administrators. But he always said, that being an administrator meant “saying no,” and he found it hard to say no. After five years, he returned to teaching, which he always loved.

After retiring from Pomona, the couple traveled quite a bit. They took their large extended family to Hawaii three times, where much fun was had by all. They also traveled with each of their children and their families to places like New Zealand, England, Italy and France.

The McDonalds were founding members of Claremont Presbyterian Church in the mid-1950s.  He served on the church session several times and sang in the church choir for many years. In 2003, the couple moved to Mt. San Antonio Gardens senior care community. They enjoyed living there, spent time with new friends and old; and in these last few years received excellent care and support.

“Lee was a wonderful father and grandfather,” his family wrote. “Perhaps because he was an only child he seemed to always love spending time with his kids. He told marvelous, imaginative stories to his children and grandchildren at bedtime for years. He played basketball and catch with his children. He pushed us to articulate our ideas at the dinner table.”

He was a staunch member of the Democratic Party, working for civil rights in the 1960s and gay rights in the ‘90s. Although he was an army veteran and had reached the rank of second lieutenant, he was not in favor of any subsequent wars. He worked for peace. He cared deeply about the environment and the future of the planet, even though he knew he wouldn’t live to see climate change totally take hold. He taught his children that what happened in the political realm really mattered. He also knew that having a sense of humor was essential in life and laughing is part of what makes life worth living.

“He suffered the loss of three children over the course of his long life,” his family shared. “But, through it all, he never lost his ability to be kind, funny and exceedingly loving to those around him,” his family said. “Until his last days, he remained devoted to his wife, Claire, and found his greatest joy in singing the standards from the 1940s and the ‘50s with her by his side.”

He is survived by his wife Claire; daughter Mary and son-in-law Jack; daughter Alison and daughter-in-law Sandy; son Paul and daughter-in-law Susan; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

His daughter Devon died in 1957; daughter Julie died in 1996, and son Tom in 2010.

A memorial service, to be held at Claremont Presbyterian Church, will be announced at a later date, when it is safer for all to gather and all members of the family can attend.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to two organizations that were important to him: the Natural Resources Defense Council at www.nrdc.org or Pomona College at https://community.pomona.edu/give_today.

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