“Direct, no-nonsense, and truly an advocate for the rural school districts”
By Marshall Lind, former Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development
Remarks delivered at Don MacKinnon’s Memorial Tribute
Barbara, and other members of the MacKinnon family—thank you for offering me the opportunity to say a few things regarding my former colleague and friend. I am honored to have been asked and will share a few of my observations.
Like many of you here today, I have had the opportunity over the years to work with and get to know personally some really good people. And as I reflect on those relationships, I find that there are some who truly stand out as special— individuals who have been helpful to me and have made a lasting positive impression on me. I have asked myself why? How did they do that? Was it the humility, kindness, honesty, sincerity, competence, patience, respect of their peers, because they were hard workers, had leadership skills, or just plain fun to be around? Don epitomized all these qualities and probably many more that I didn’t highlight here.
I met Don over 50 years ago when he was Superintendent at Hoonah, and I was Commissioner of Education. Don had earned a positive reputation as an effective administrator for his hard work, honesty, and for understanding and respecting the local culture and lifestyle of the people he served. He knew how to work with the school board, and it was obvious there was strong mutual respect—especially between him and long-time school board president and local leader, Marlene Johnson. I believe the people of Hoonah were sorry to see the MacKinnon family leave.
When Don moved to Cordova as Superintendent, he employed those same personal and administrative skills resulting in another positive professional experience. He knew the economy of Cordova was tied to the fishing industry. He knew something about that, having lived in Southeast. He knew hard work, honesty, and good working relations with the board and community members were essential in order to make the schools responsive to the community needs. It was my impression that Don felt very positive about his accomplishments in Cordova.
In 1976 I encouraged Don to consider working for the Department of Education to help us assist the 20 plus new school districts as part of a major effort to decentralize the state-operated schools and transfer some of the former BIA schools. We badly needed someone with the experience of a superintendent of schools in small towns or rural settings. Someone who knew Alaska and the various cultures and how to work with rural school boards. Don was the perfect fit. He had the credibility and personality for the job. He traveled all over the state and helped many of the new districts become responsive and accountable to the people they served. We were fortunate that Don chose to join us as he was a great team member. He was direct, no-nonsense, and truly an advocate for the rural school districts. His interest and knowledge of equity of funding led to some major improvements in our foundation support formula. Don was also extremely helpful as districts were implementing the new rural secondary schools that came about through the settlement of the Molly Hootch consent decree.
From the Department of Education, Don chose to accept the position of Superintendent of the Juneau School district. All of us at the DOE were sorry to see him go but were pleased our hometown was getting a good person, a superintendent who understood the community and really wanted to live here. From a parent’s perspective, we were relieved as we knew he would do a good job. This was an easy transition for a true Juneauite, even though not an easy job.
As a capstone on his professional career, Don accepted the position as the first Executive Director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators. This was a change as he now was working for a board of directors made up of all school administrators, and his budget was totally dependent on membership fees and grant money. His job was to advocate for public education. Don was instrumental in forming a cooperative alliance among all school administrators—not a simple task with superintendents, elementary principals, secondary principals, and school business officials.
The early ’80s was a challenging time for the State and education as we faced some major financial issues with declining oil prices. In the March 1983 ACSA Newsletter authored by Don, his candid advice to his constituents was: “The Legislature and the Governor have made it clear that they are expecting school districts to develop maintenance level budgets and avoid foundation formula manipulation. My best advice to the districts would be to avoid adding any additional categorical program expansion in the budget with the expectation that the legislature will automatically fund these new programs. It probably won’t happen.” A good example of his no-nonsense characteristic I mentioned earlier.
Every year, across our state, the name Donald MacKinnon will come up in relation to the awarding of the MacKinnon Educational Excellence and Human Recognition Award given to deserving school board members who have provided meritorious service to their school districts and communities. This award, established in 1985, is given in honor of Don’s work to forge professional relationships on behalf of Alaska’s young people. I know from talking to a number of people around the state that this award is considered a big deal, something special. It should be because as I hope I pointed out, the guy honored by the naming of this award was special.
On a personal note, I shared some fun times with Don skiing together at Eaglecrest. Although we may not have been the most graceful pair, nor could we keep pace with Bill Corbus and Mike Grummett, we had good times even with our occasional faceplants. I particularly enjoyed listening to some of Don’s stories as we rode the chairlift. As you know, he was a good storyteller. Talk about storytelling—what was really interesting was when Don, former Mayor and DOE employee, Ernie Polley, and former State Board of Education President, Katie Hurley, would together share stories after a State Board meeting about their early years in Juneau and living at some time in their lives on 12th Street.
In closing, I am reminded of an anonymous quote I read a long time ago, which in essence says that ”years after you are gone, most people won’t remember all the great things you have done in your life, but they will always remember how you treated them”. I know I will Don, thanks.