Denfeld News

July 22, 2012
Duluth News Tribune

USA Hockey honors educator, Duluth native McDonald
By Kevin Pates

Harry McDonald’s love of Alaska began in the summer of 1959, the year he graduated from Duluth Denfeld High School.

“I don’t think he ever went through the ceremony or got his diploma, because he decided to hitchhike to Alaska,” said Mark Myles, a 1961 Denfeld graduate and close friend. “He went up through Seattle and found work on a fishing boat and made $3,000.

“Harry came back and bought a camel hair coat, a pair of alligator shoes and a 1948 Pontiac. He was someone who went after his dream — an athletic, smart, brash, handsome guy with an infectious smile.”

McDonald later spent 30 years in Eagle River and Chugiak, Alaska, 10 miles north of Anchorage. He was a physical education teacher at Chugiak High School for 27 years and is recognized as the community’s first hockey leader. He helped bring indoor hockey to the area, coached two Alaska prep championship teams and worked with four generations of youth players.

McDonald died while piloting a plane in 1994. He was 53. The indoor rink in Eagle River, built in 1984 for $4.8 million, was re-christened the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center.

On May 24, he was posthumously presented USA Hockey’s Walter Yaciuk Award, given annually by the organization’s Coaching Education Program to an individual making an outstanding contribution as a volunteer.

McDonald’s widow, Carole, and three of their children were in Colorado Springs, Colo., for USA Hockey’s Awards Dinner which, appropriately enough, also included two Duluthians — UMD center Jack Connolly as college player of the year and Green Bay Gamblers defenseman Andy Welinski as junior player of the year.

Emulating Ray Peterson

McDonald grew up near First Street and 29th Avenue West, close to the Wheeler Field Athletic Complex at 35th Avenue West and Grand Avenue. According to friends, he flourished athletically through the guidance of Ray Peterson, the director of activities at Wheeler for 33 years starting in 1941. Peterson was one of Duluth’s hockey pioneers and taught more than the game’s fundamentals, says Pat Francisco.

“Ray took Harry under his wing and provided life lessons. He taught many of us that doing for others is what’s important,” said Francisco, 66, a 1963 Denfeld graduate. “Later in his life, Harry picked up that torch from Ray and carried it to Alaska and became so important to the community there.”

After playing hockey and football at Denfeld, hockey at the University of Minnesota and finishing an undergraduate degree at Minnesota Duluth, McDonald earned a master’s degree at Wisconsin-Superior. His interest in Alaska was then rekindled by a friend from Morgan Park who lived there, and when McDonald was to wed Carole Bertram of Duluth in 1965, he told his fiancée they would be relocating.

“I wondered if that was the right move for us, but he said if I didn’t think I would be happy in Alaska that we would postpone the wedding. Well, I had already bought my wedding dress,” Carole McDonald, 70, said last week from Eagle River.

The couple left Duluth, and the gregarious red-headed McDonald made his mark over the next three decades as teacher, coach and friend.

“I believe Harry’s parents instilled a lot of responsibility in him. When he was growing up, he got himself to practices and games by himself; he was self-reliant. And he talked about Ray Peterson all the time. He was very much an influence,” Carole McDonald said.

Although fire destroyed Peterson Arena at Wheeler Field in 2004, Peterson’s legacy continues at the Duluth Heritage Sports Center. He was named among four youth hockey founders to be memorialized in a mural when the building opened in 2008.

Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center

The McDonalds had four children, and there are eight grandchildren, all who play hockey. Son Reid McDonald was a forward at Michigan Tech from 1988-92, and has been manager of the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center in Eagle River, Alaska, since 1997, where he’s also a youth coach. He enjoys building on a family heritage.

“Working here presented me the opportunity to work with children and be around hockey, and be involved in the community,” said Reid McDonald, 43, who has sons ages 13, 11 and 9. “It’s amazing, it’s nearly 20 years since my dad died and still people talk about him. It is amazing the number of people he had an impact on.

“He saw greatness in everyone. He saw good in everyone; it was not just about sports. And in return he was respected and loved by so many people.

“He was a good father to his children, we never felt we were playing second fiddle to anyone. I figure if I’m 10 percent of what he was, I’ll be doing OK.”

Harry McDonald’s life was cut short when he and one-time Duluthian Todd Sjodin, 30, a chemist for an oil firm, were scouting a site to hunt sheep Aug. 7, 1994. With McDonald at the controls of a small aircraft, the twosome was to be gone for about an hour when they crashed in a barren rock valley, near a glacier, about 22 miles from Chugiak.

A memorial service at Chugiak High School was attended by an overflow crowd of nearly 3,000 mourners.

At a service at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Duluth, Myles was among those asked to provide a eulogy.

“There were so many stories that tell you who he was. After a disconsolate youth player had scored a goal, on his own goalie, Harry carried him around the rink on his shoulders and told him what a great shot he’d made,” said Myles, 68, who spent 30 years in the Duluth school district as a teacher and administrator before retiring in 1997. “He often said that the best thing parents can do for their children is to give them their time. He was a huge believer in education and was the one who leaned on me to get my master’s degree.”

This spring, major upgrades to the McDonald Memorial Center of $6 million were completed, including the addition of an indoor turf field with a track and a maintenance shop.

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