Kwame McDonald was highly regarded as educator, activist and friend to many
By Charles Hallman
The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team honored the late Kwame McDonald during halftime of Sunday’s Gophers-Illinois contest. The MSR senior sports columnist passed away of cancer on October 26, 2011 at age 80.
A crowd of 14,625 gave McDonald, veteran Nathan Thomas, and Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. Hiram Mann a standing ovation after the team’s public address announcer Dick Jonckowski read aloud each man’s accomplishments during Sunday’s “Celebrate Black History Month” ceremony.
“I was so pleased to learn that [Gopher] Athletics wanted to do something for Black History Month, and they wanted to honor these individuals,” said Minnesota Assistant Vice President of Equity and Diversity Rickey Hall. “I hope it is something that they will continue to do.
“It would be great for them to do this every year. I think it is really important for people to know the legacy that Black folk have made in Minnesota and in the community, and how they assisted the university to be the great university we are today,” said Hall.
Black people deserve to be honored “all the time,” believes Archie Givens, Jr., who also was honored Sunday for being a 30-year Gopher men’s basketball season-ticket holder. Each honoree on Sunday received a large plaque.
“It is an honor for me to see how the university feels about him and honor him like this,” said Mitchell McDonald, who accepted the award for his late father. He added that Sunday was the first Gophers basketball game he has attended since his father’s death almost two years ago.
Kwame McDonald was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, majored in political science at Central State (Ohio) University; but most of his adult life he lived in the Twin Cities and followed the Gophers, especially football and men’s and women’s basketball. His love, however, went beyond sports, as McDonald often was a confidant for many young persons, helping them navigate through a big-time collegiate environment both as athletes and students.
“It was more than about sports for him,” continued Mitchell. “His main goal was to help anyone be better than the person they were the day before.”
McDonald was involved in the Twin Cities sports community in various ways, including as a photojournalist for three local Black newspapers, one of them the MSR, where he wrote both sports columns and political commentaries for over two decades. He also organized youth programs and hosted a sports talk show on local cable access for 12 years and earlier for several years on KMOJ-FM.
He also coached the Summit University Stars, a local women’s AAU basketball team that featured many Gopher athletes in the late 1970s. Then-Gopher coach Clem Haskins asked him to direct the former Pillsbury basketball league for two summers from 1987 to1989.
“When you saw Kwame, you thought about Minnesota basketball throughout the entire state,” said Minnesota Women’s Basketball Coach Pam Borton. “He was an ambassador, a figurehead, a supporter — I thought he always was extremely positive in everything he said and wrote about.”
“He worked to make Minnesota — to make St. Paul and Minneapolis — a better place,” added Minnesota Men’s Basketball Coach Tubby Smith of McDonald. “People like that, you have to treasure their memory and their accomplishments.”
Besides Gopher athletics, McDonald was a popular fixture at local high school games as well as at several small colleges in the area. “As a child growing up, I didn’t understand what he was doing, but he was being himself,” admitted Mitchell on his father, whose career over several decades included teaching, administrating, mentoring, coaching, broadcasting, sportswriting and activism..
“I didn’t know him well,” admitted Hall. “I’ve heard his name and all the good things that he’d done. What I really read about was his civil rights work.” McDonald worked with the Urban League both in Milwaukee (1957-1959) and in St. Paul (1959-1961). He also headed the state’s Commission against Discrimination in 1961.
“He always has been an activist for the people,” noted Mitchell McDonald of his father. “He always wanted to help youth.”
“It’s great to honor a man who has done so much not just to support the university, but also to support young people in the community as a whole,” said Hall, who last November was named vice chancellor for diversity at the University of Tennessee and will be leaving for his new job in May.
“He is a renaissance man, in my opinion,” believes Smith of McDonald. “I’m glad the university chose to honor him, because he was such a diverse person.”
In what was his last public appearance at St. Paul Central High School in early October 2011, just a couple weeks before his death, McDonald and Smith briefly chatted. “He was a guy who took me under his wing when I first got here [in 2007]. We used to meet and have lunch and spend time together.
“Being a teacher, he and I could talk about a lot of things. Being an African American myself, he was a guy to look up to,” recalled Smith. “Seeing him in his last public appearance, and the things he said, and the things he challenged people to do to make this a better place was quite a legacy.”
U of M senior Trevor Mbakwe of St. Paul got to know McDonald during his high school days. “I met him a few times in high school,” he remembers. “He was always around the youth in the African American community. He put time into [helping] us as individuals and as young men.”
McDonald “meant a lot to the community and had a lot of positivity for our kids to look up to,” added U of M Assistant Coach Vince Taylor.
We will be hard-pressed to find someone to fill Kwame McDonald’s shoes, surmised Smith. “There always will be someone who will have to step up, whether it’s because of the opportunity or because they are pressed into that [because] of need, but there is only one Kwame McDonald, so I don’t think you will see another like him.”
“I’m glad they did it,” said Mbakwe on McDonald’s recognition. “He’s one of a kind, a special person.”
When asked about the standing ovation for his father, Mitchell said, “There’re probably a lot of people in the audience that he touched. It was very heartwarming for me. It made me proud of everything that he did. It would have been nice if he would have been around to see it, but he is in spirit.
“I’m just happy that the people at the University of Minnesota and the people in the crowd were able to see him get honored,” Mitchell continued. “I’m proud of my father. I’m proud of what he stood for, and I hope to carry that on.”
Read more on Kwame McDonald in this week’s “Another View” on the MSR sports page.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokes man-recorder.com.