By Charles Hallman
Who hasn’t Kwame McDonald touched, influenced, mentored, pushed or pulled in the Twin Cities? In Minnesota? The United States? In the world? The search for that person would be like finding a haystack needle.
That was the overall theme last Friday night, October 7, as an estimated 300 persons honored the longtime elder at St. Paul Central High School. “We had just barely a week to have this function to celebrate Kwame’s life,” said Elder Bobby Hickman.
“This is for Kwame,” proclaimed Dr. Mary K. Boyd to the nearly filled auditorium. She and Hickman served as mistress and master of ceremonies.
Boyd explained at the start of the three-hour event, held just a few blocks east from McDonald’s home, that presentations would be “short on remarks but long in love.” However, her instructions were not always followed: Some remarks were long, if necessary, and the love shown for McDonald, who sat quietly taking everything in, seemed limitless.
Representing government, education, sports, and the St. Paul community, the many speakers testified, reminisced, or presented tokens of appreciation and affection to a man who Boyd easily called “a great human being, a wonderful man, and a great contributor to our community.”
“He [McDonald] has to know that we love him,” said Pastor Darryl Spence in his call to action to the audience.
“You have led the way and taught us all well,” said Jim Robinson. “We will do whatever we must do to fight the fight… Thank you very much.”
“He loves all people, but he has a special place in his heart for our people,” said Marquette University Professor Howard Fuller of his friend. “He loves Black people.”
McDonald “is a true ambassador for the families and children of Ramsey County,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter as she gave him one of several government-issued proclamations.
“We felt the heart and warmth from him even in North Minneapolis,” added State Representative Bobby Champion, who honored him on behalf of the Minnesota Legislature.
“He continues to provide leadership to our community,” said St. Paul Deputy Mayor Paul Williams, who first met McDonald 30 years ago.
“He cared about the people in St. Paul…and left a deep impact on our organization,” said SPNN’s Mike Wassenar, who was executive producer on McDonald’s “Sports Rap” show. The show ran for 10 years on the city’s public access channel, where McDonald also produced several community-based documentaries.
McDonald’s photojournalist work, which primarily focused on the athletic exploits of urban youth, provided media exposure that otherwise might not have occurred, said Steve Winfield. “He started taking pictures and writing about young people,” he pointed out. “Kwame made sure that they got in the paper.”
“I remember my first summer job here was with Kwame. He introduced me to St. Paul,” said Crystal Flint, who came here from Boston in the early 1990s to attend the University of Minnesota and remained in the area since her graduation.
“It has been a growing relationship ever since. He kept me relevant to the community. Every move I made, he followed it. I appreciate that,” said Flint.
McDonald’s involvement in athletics included his founding and coaching the Summit-University Stars women’s basketball team, “the early [Minnesota] Lynx,” said Winfield.
“If you know Kwame McDonald, you know he is a real person,” said Linda Roberts, a team member. “He’s always in the right place. He’s always looking out for everybody. Before he takes care of one thing, he is going to make sure that the other person is taken care of.
“It’s good to recognize the things he’s done in the Twin Cities now rather than later,” said Roberts.
“This is my way of bidding farewell,” said McDonald during a prerecorded video piece shown to the audience. A Madison, Wisconsin native who attended college in Ohio, he first moved to St. Paul in 1959. His late wife Mary became a longtime educator in the city, and the two raised their son Mitchell here.
Although he left St. Paul three times, McDonald admitted there was “a lure” that brought him back to the capital city. “I’m so glad I was able to come back to St. Paul. I have not one regret of my sojourn to St. Paul, Minnesota.”
He could have boasted about his lengthy and legendary community work, but he chose to speak most about his work with youth: “I’m fortunate to have been around long enough to see some of these young people…be of service in the community,” said McDonald proudly. “I am fulfilled.”
He also acknowledged that his days are winding down. “This will be the place where I will leave this world as we know it,” McDonald said simply. But in typical Kwame fashion, he offered a priceless bit of wisdom as he advised all “to give of self and help other people to give of self. One cannot advance as self without being pushed or pulled by others.”
Afterwards, McDonald shook hands or took pictures with everyone who came on stage to greet him, including U of M Men’s Basketball Coach Tubby Smith. “Whenever things would go down, or things happen, he would try to be there as one to calm the waters,” said Smith. “He never came off as someone who knows it all. He came off as a guy who genuinely cares about your well being. I always will cherish that.”
Saying thank you to McDonald while he can still “smell those roses or get that pat on the back — I think this occasion is important for that reason,” said Council on Black Minnesotans Director Lester Collins.
“To honor and spend some time in honoring him was the proper thing to do. Quite frankly, this is something we need to do more for one another.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]