There was a slight stir in the press gallery when the newest member of Saginaw’s City Council under the then-new council-manager government form walked to his seat in the meeting room, which still smelled of the new city hall building’s fresh paint.
He was Dr. Francis J. McDonald, black-haired, 43, of medium stature, young-looking for his years. He flashed one of his Irish smiles and greeted the city government reporters as he passed. Respectfully, they tried to give him as good as he had sent.
Dr. McDonald’s dental office was in the Second National Bank building, but he lived on the west side. He had friends on both sides of the river. He already had made his own name in civic leadership, apart from extensive dental practice. The time was late January, 1936. Dr. McDonald had been appointed to the city council by the other members to succeed Harvey A. Penney, who died January 10, only four days after the new municipal form of government went into effect here. The city hall press corps soon began addressing Dr. McDonald as “Mac,” which he preferred, anyway. The other members of the council, through their work on the commission which wrote the new city charter, were only slightly more knowledgeable about city governmental matters than McDonald. But it didn’t take him long to even matters. In addition to his study of the new government, McDonald had an extraordinary amount of plain common sense. He had the ability to look at a problem from all angles. If now was not the time to act upon it, he knew that instinctively and he so influenced his colleagues, except for a dissenter or two, sometimes. They demurred, then usually joined the majority.
The common sense McDonald had was partner to a political sagacity, which may or may not have been at least partly learned from his father-in-law, Congressman Joseph W. Fordney, who was the Republican representative of the Eighth Congressional District. Fordney remained in office more than 20 years and was one of the most popular, powerful and influential figures in Washington. He had been chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He resigned office to spend more time with his family. Dr. McDonald married the ex-congressman’s daughter, Mary. They reared three sons and a daughter.
He soon became a friend and confidant of L. Perry Cookingham, Saginaw’s first city manager, a man of extraordinary ability. Cookingham had had only limited experience in his field and had come from a small town. One of his main virtues was that he was an opportunist. He left Saginaw to become manager of politically-ridden Kansas City, Missouri. He did a job there which made him acknowledged in his profession as the nation’s No. 1 city manager. But Cookingham’s early days as Saginaw’s city manager sometimes were shaky. He needed advice about how the public here might react to some new ideas he had for public improvements. In this matter, most of his guidance came from McDonald and Arnold Boutell, generally hailed as “the father of Saginaw’s new government.” Boutell was a wise, gnome-like little man—a multi-millionaire industrialist-investor. He was bald and wore a Van Dyke beard. Boutell had made himself a keen student of municipal government. But Boutell lacked a touch with the common people or an understanding of them.
More than any other councilman, McDonald had this understanding of the common voter—from enthusiastic proponents of the new city government to the incorrigible scoffers. The latter existed in substantial numbers. McDonald helped City Manager Cookingham over many of these vexing administrative humps. McDonald’s counsel in such matters was unerring enough that it often was sought also by Councilman Boutell. McDonald was elected in April, 1937, to complete the remaining two years of his term. His council colleagues then elected him mayor to succeed the late Frank W. Marxer, first mayor under the new government.
Dr. McDonald served as mayor from 1937 to 1939. He held office during the troublous UAW sit-down strike here. Several times embattled unionists marched on city hall to protest police action against picketers and other grievances. More than 100 thronged the small city council chamber to standing-room only. Mayor McDonald’s straight, common-language talk and his wit kept order. He assured them their grievances would get full consideration and they obviously believed him. Newsmen who covered those sessions never forgot how the mayor’s diplomacy had eased the tension and prevented possible violence.
After McDonald served his term as mayor, he officially retired from government service. But his former council colleagues continued to seek his advice. It was not known generally but McDonald helped Schools’ Superintendant Chester F. Miller obtain federal aid for the construction of Arthur Hill High School.
In 1929, he began growing evergreens and pines on a small plot of what now is McDonald’s Nursery on Center Road. After he retired from dental practice, what had been a hobby became a family business proposition. Conceded now to be one of the Midwest’s largest and finest nursery and garden centers, it also has full landscaping service. Tom and Ruth McDonald’s daughter, Jody McDonald Rider, is now the owner and president of the nursery.
Dr. McDonald was born in Saginaw, June 30, 1893. He was graduated from St. Mary High School in 1912, worked for a time in the old Pere Marquette Railroad freight offices here, then was graduated from the University of Michigan dental school in 1916.
He practiced dentistry here two years, then entered the army dental corps in 1918 and returned to practice here in 1919 after military discharge.
In 1951, he was named director for life for distinguished service in the Saginaw Community Chest. During World War II, he served as president of the Saginaw United Service Organizations. He was a member of various other clubs and service organizations and was a prominent member of the Saginaw Club.
Dr. Francis J. McDonald died in 1963 at the age of 69.