Los Altan of the Year

Posted on January 5, 2011 by  
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Every year our local paper, the Town Crier, selects an individual as Los Altan of the Year.  This honor has been bestowed to a number of individuals that I have always held in high regard.  They are selflessly committed to our community.  They create bonds that make Los Altos what it is today.

This year, Don McDonald was selected.  He is widely respected, thoroughly humble, and a consummate gentleman. Below you will find an edited version of the Crier’s story.  Enjoy …

Donald C. McDonald’s eyes light up as he talks enthusiastically about the characters and events that framed early Los Altos history. The names Paul Shoup and George Ramsey may not mean much to today’s Los Altos residents, but these early settlers fascinate the man whose love of history is always very much part of his present.

That love has spurred longtime, ongoing volunteer work at the Los Altos History Museum. But Don’s cultured side – he loves travel, fine art and opera – also played a role in his helping to found Los Altos Sister Cities Inc., an ambassadorial organization that has spread the good will of this community to countries around the world.

Don, 92, has sparked interest in the stories of others among countless Los Altos residents. He has played a major role in the community’s commitment to respecting its history.

Because of his 40 years of volunteer work enlightening the Los Altos community, the Town Crier has named Don its 2010 Los Altan of the Year. The paper presents its annual honor to residents whose contributions create good will and make Los Altos a desirable community in which to live.

Don, known by many as the town historian, said he was “deeply honored and humbled.”

“This is right up there with a major award stipend I got from NSA (National Security Agency),” Don winked, “but that one paid better because a lifetime stipend went along with it.”

Don began volunteering not long after he arrived in Los Altos in 1970. With the Los Altos History House Association, he worked as a docent, conducted approximately 100 interviews for the museum’s Oral History Program and wrote many historical items for the museum’s newsletter and the Town Crier.

He was guest curator for the 2000 exhibition “Los Altos as a Homefront in World War II,” and used that information as part of a new book published this year for which he wrote captions. “Images of America: Early Los Altos and Los Altos Hills” (Arcadia Publishing, 2010) is credited to Don McDonald and the Los Altos History Museum. He attended special events and book signings in support of the book, which covers the history of the region from 1850 to 1950.

In 1990-1991, Don served as Los Altos Sister Cities vice president for Bendigo, Australia. The Los Altos Historical Commission appointed him a member in 1999.

From 1980 until last year, he volunteered at the Bechtel International Center at Stanford University, both as a teacher and a conversational partner for foreign scholars and their spouses. From 1974 until 1995, he periodically taught poetry classes for the Palo Alto Adult School.

His interest in history led him to join such local organizations as the Peninsula Civil War Round Table (where he served as president in 1991), the South Bay Civil War Round Table, the Palo Alto Historical Association, the Mountain View Historical Society, the Moffett Field Historical Society and the Society for Aviation History. He has also written for the Glendale Historical Society.

For his volunteer work, Don received the Los Altos-Los Altos Hills Joint Community Volunteer Service Award in 2000. And in 2008, the Los Altos City Council honored him by proclaiming his 90th birthday, July 25, “Don McDonald Day.”

Pursuing a special interest in early music, Don founded the Washington Recorder Society in 1957. He organized and led the Silver Spring Consort, which sponsored a number of early music programs in the Silver Spring Library in Maryland. In addition to being an excellent recorder player, Don is a published poet.

He is an avid amateur photographer. Don enjoys theater and performed in a number of community theater productions, as well as at Camp Zama, Japan.

For nearly 30 years, Don and his wife, Audrey, traveled worldwide. They took many trips to Europe and Australia; polar voyages from Greenland to the Canadian Arctic, and to Antarctica; three extensive freighter trips – around South America, from and to San Francisco (1976); around the world, from Antwerp westward to Rotterdam (1991); and from New Orleans to Algeria and Egypt, returning through the St. Lawrence Seaway to Cleveland (1978). They also participated in 10 Elderhostel programs in the United States and one in France.

Their north Los Altos home is filled with items collected on their travels, such as boomerangs from Australia and woodblocks from Japan. But Don’s biggest and most important collections are friends.

With typical humility, Don downplays his achievements and attributes his life’s successes to good fortune.

“I think 10 percent is genealogy, 5 percent is not doing the wrong things and 85 percent is pure luck,” Don said in explaining his success – and longevity.

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