Joseph Franklin McDonald passed away on Thursday December 14, 2023, at St. Luke Hospital in Ronan with his family by his side following a short illness. At the time of his passing, he was 90 years old. He was born on March 31, 1933, to Isabel and Ed McDonald in St. Ignatius, MT.
Joe spent his early days growing up with lots of family around at his dad and grandfather’s homes at Post Creek, within eyesight of the Ft. Connah Trading Post. His brother Dick and cousin Bearhead were his best comrades. He was often lovingly referred to as Baby Joe by the many relatives he was raised with. The family home had many people coming through to stop and picnic, fish in the creek and swim in his dad’s homemade swimming hole, or in the pursuit of horses and cattle that Joe’s grandfather raised.
Joe was an astute student, but sports are what he excelled best at during his school years. His first introduction to his love of basketball happened in 4th grade at a school assembly to watch a high school game. He fell in love with the sport immediately and went home to make a makeshift ball out of rags and a basket from a chicken wire gate. When the family moved to Dixon, Joe was in the 6th grade, and he made the grade school basketball team and continued to play hoops through the rest of his school time along with expressing great talent on the baseball and football fields.
During grade school and high school, Joe helped and became quite involved with the family’s horses, learning to ride, race and rope, and going on many pack trips to the mountains and trips to and from the family ranch. He attended high school in both St. Ignatius and in Dixon, as the family had homes at both Post Creek and Dixon Agency. He sometimes changed his attendance based on the sport he wanted to play and being able to play with his friends including his cousin Bearhead. While at St. Ignatius his sophomore year, the football team won the State Class C Championship. During his senior year, Joe lived at Post Creek where he lived with his uncle Benny, and that winter, he coached the Ursuline School boys basketball team. Joe graduated that spring from St. Ignatius High School in 1951.
After high school, Joe worked as a USFS smokejumper and was stationed in West Yellowstone. The jumpers were a natural progression for Joe as he had gotten into the business of working at wildfire support camps at the young age of 12, a time when many young men were away from the reservation during WWII. While at West Yellowstone, he crossed paths with a coach from Dillon high school who promised to get Joe a scholarship to play basketball at Western Montana College. That coach delivered and during his time at Western, Joe played football, basketball, and baseball. Joe endeavored to be on every athletic team bus that ever departed from Dillon. While at Western, Joe also met and married the love of his life, Sharon Christopherson. They married at the end of the summer of their freshman year at Western, having both worked in West Yellowstone that summer. Soon after, they welcomed their first son Tim. Joe earned an Associate degree and teaching certificate at Western Montana College in 1953.
After earning his teaching certificate, Joe taught and coached in various K-12 schools across the state of Montana from 1953-1964 (Oilmont, Plevna, Miles City, and Hamilton). During this time, he also attended the University of Montana (U of M), earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the field of Education and Health and P.E respectively. From 1964-1965, while he and Sherri were raising their four children (Tim, Terry, Tracie, and Tom), Joe was the Assistant Basketball Coach at the U of M.
Other professional accomplishments of Joe’s included coaching basketball and track at Northern Montana College (1965-1967); serving as the high school principal and assistant superintendent at Ronan Public Schools while coaching many sports (1967-1978); serving two terms on the CSKT Tribal Council from 1974-1982; acting as the Title III Coordinator for Flathead Valley Community College; and with his Doctorate of Education from U of M, he then supported efforts to establish and lead Salish Kootenai College as its President from 1978-2010
Joe’s parents met at Haskell Indian School and they both expressed the importance of school and getting a college education, so it's no surprise that Joe then spent the majority of his life in the pursuit of creating better educational opportunities for all of the students he was involved with, especially on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Through the founding of Salish Kootenai College and through his advocacy work for Indian Education across the state of Montana and the country. Throughout his career Joe helped create school athletic programs to help keep youth interested in school and helped set up tutoring programs for Native students, sponsored Indian clubs to help students solve problems and stay in school, introduced an Indian Studies curriculum, advocated for the Salish language to be taught for the first time in a public school on the reservation, and coached and refereed when and where needed on courts and in classrooms.
Salish Kootenai College became the second love of Joe’s life, after his wife Sherri and his children’s families. He served the college in many capacities including as a janitor, instructor, committee member, administrator, fundraiser, and coach. He advocated for the college to serve the broader reservation community and Tribe through teaching the Salish and Kootenai languages, drumming and singing and other traditional and cultural skills. His efforts in educational leadership earned him many recognitions including honorary degrees from Gonzaga University and Montana State University; distinguished alumni awards from U of M and Western Montana College; distinguished services awards from the American Indian Higher Education Consortium; National Indian Educator of the Year award; being appointed to the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame; and many other numerous coaching, educator, and civic leadership awards.
After retiring from SKC, Joe spent much of his time supporting his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in their life pursuits with his wife Sherri. He especially loved watching his grandchildren and great-grandchildren excel in basketball, baseball, softball, track, cross country, volleyball, and soccer. He also dedicated much of his time to continuing writing and recording the history of the Flathead Reservation with his special friend Bob Bigart and to preservation efforts at Fort Connah and served the community on several boards.
Joe was preceded in death by his parents, his wife Sherri McDonald, and their son and daughter in-law Terry and Paula (Camel) McDonald.
Joe is survived by: son Tim; son Terry's daughters Angela and her partner Alex, Carma and her husband Tony and her children Jaden, Samuel and Sophie; daughter Tracie and her children Jessica and husband Demetrius, and Brandie and her daughter Rylee; son Tom and his wife Teresa and their children; Annie and her daughters Kylynn, Kaeslynn and Kendalynn; Katie and her son Ben; Erin and her daughter Esmae; Chris and his wife Julie; and Noah and his partner Layla. He is also survived by many extended family members, special friends, and the many faculty and students who walked through the halls of Ronan High School and Salish Kootenai College.
The family would like to extend their thanks to the staff at St. Luke hospital, who made the family feel welcome and who offered such tender compassionate care to Joe. Special thanks to Dr. Cara Harrop and her assistant Vanessa, who assisted Joe and the family with his medical care. Also, a very special thank you to Father Victor and Father Hightower. Many friends and family members stopped by to share memories with Joe prior to his passing on Thursday, December 14th. Thank you to all who stopped by to share stories and love.
A public service and celebration of Joe’s life will be held on January 17, 2024, beginning with a 10:00 am Funeral Mass service at the St. Ignatius Catholic Church in St. Ignatius, MT. Following the service, there will be a 12:00 pm Celebration of Life luncheon at the Salish Kootenai College Gym (the Joe) in Pablo, MT.