Don’t underestimate the pull of our roots

December 14, 2013

JackMacDonaldJack MacDonald’s story seems torn from the pages of a movie script.

For years, he hid his wealth behind the carefully constructed image of a penny-pinching man who clipped coupons, rode the bus and wore ragged sweaters. He lived for bargains, and kept his wallet full of discount offers and other deals.

MacDonald could have lived the life of opulence. His fortune, inherited from his father’s meat empire and grown with savvy investments, was in the hundreds of millions. But he lived simply, only allowing himself a few indulgences, including fine Scotch.

His thriftiness was so extreme that he once bought a used car — on sale, of course — because the dealership was offering free watches to anyone who came on the lot, according to his stepdaughter, Regen Dennis.

But MacDonald’s frugality didn’t extend to his philanthropy. Since the 1970s, the Seattle millionaire quietly gave $320,000 to Elora, money that helped pay for a hockey rink, park projects, playground equipment, repair work on a local bridge and cenotaph, and the construction of the town’s civic hall.

These donations, sent by cheque and accompanied by handwritten notes, seemed to come out of the blue for town officials. MacDonald, an American citizen, had spent his entire life on the West Coast, about as far away from Wellington County as you can get in North America.

Elora was not his hometown, not by any stretch. But he had family roots there, and they ran deep.

When he died this fall, at age 96, MacDonald’s generosity went even further — he left a $187.6-million charitable trust for the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, the University of Washington School of Law and the Salvation Army.

Elora, now amalgamated with the Township of Centre Wellington, will continue to be looked after, too. The municipality will get $25,000 a year from his estate for whatever public project they choose. The mayor says the first goal is to make their 20-year-old town hall building wheelchair accessible.

MacDonald’s philanthropy ought to be celebrated. It’s rare today to find someone of such wealth who can be so thrifty with themselves and yet lavish so much generosity on others.

But what’s most remarkable about MacDonald’s story is what it says about the pull of our roots. The Prince Rupert, B.C.-born, Seattle-raised millionaire never lived in Elora, and only visited it a handful of times.

But Elora was his father Frederick’s hometown. His grandfather and grandmother grew up there, too, and once ran a sawmill. And it was the Elora area that first welcomed his great grandfather when he emigrated from Scotland in the 1830s and started farming.

MacDonald was so deeply proud of his roots in Wellington County that when he died, he wanted to be buried at his family plot in the Elora municipal cemetery. He’s interred there now, under a single granite marker he shares with three generations of his family.

It turns out MacDonald was honouring a promise to his father by sending those cheques to Elora over the years. When his father died in 1970, he asked his son to take care of the little Ontario village he’d grown up in.

Frederick wanted the MacDonalds to always remember where they came from. Jack clearly never forgot.

-Guelph Mercury, Dec. 14, 2013

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