Watertown mayor receives surprise honors during council meeting

By Matt Bunke, Community Editor

When attendance is slim at Watertown City Council meetings, Mayor K.J. McDonald likes to joke about there being "no great rush to the microphone" during the Open Forum portion of the meeting, when the public is invited is to address the council about any item not on the agenda.

The standard joke certainly seemed to be in order during the council’s most recent meeting on July 10, when nobody except the local newspaper was present for the start of the meeting. Little did McDonald know at that moment, however, the massive rush to the microphone that was about to ensue.

As a dumfounded McDonald handed over the gavel to veteran councilor Rick Mann upon his request, Mann quickly gained council approval for a letter of proclamation. As Mann read the proclamation expressing the city’s gratefulness for McDonald’s decades of service and declared that the city has been made stronger because of McDonald’s commitment to the community, Watertown residents and area leaders slowly began to file into the room by the dozen.

By the time the flow of residents into the room had subsided, nearly 100 people were present to celebrate what was later revealed to be K.J. McDonald Day in the state of Minnesota. For one of the few moments in his life, McDonald was left nearly speechless.

"It was just overwhelming," McDonald said later. "It was just a wonderful thing. After all these years, it’s nice to be recognized. I appreciate that very much. It was a great chance to reflect back on the opportunity and privilege I’ve had to be able to serve my community."

For nearly an hour, friends, neighbors, organizations and fellow elected officials took their turns approaching the microphone, each offering a proclamation or certificate of appreciation expressing gratitude for the service McDonald has provided to the community. In all, 21 proclamations or certificates were directed toward McDonald, including one signed by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton; one from the Minnesota House of Representatives that was presented by Reps. Ernie Leidiger and Joe McDonald; and a state senate resolution presented by Sen. Julianne Ortman that recognized Tuesday, July 10, 2012, as K.J. McDonald Day in Minnesota.

Other proclamations came from the cities of Mayer, Victoria, Carver, Waconia and Delano, as well as the Carver County Board. Other proclamations came from the various organizations that McDonald has been active in or contributed to over the years, including the Fine Arts Council, Watertown Area Historical Society, American Legion, Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce, Commission on Aging, Christ Community Lutheran School, Tri-County Toastmasters, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, and the Watertown-Mayer School Board.

McDonald’s decades of public service go far beyond the local community. Politically, McDonald first served as Mayor of Watertown in 1976-77. He was elected for the first of his seven terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1977, and served in the House from 1978 through 1990. Most recently, McDonald was elected to the Watertown city council in 2006.

"You’ve served your country well in the Korean War, you’ve served your state as a representative, and you’ve served your city as its mayor," Leidiger said to McDonald during his turn at the podium. "But actually more importantly, you’ve touched the hearts and minds of so many people all over this state, and certainly all over this community. I want to thank you for doing that, for teaching us, for being a great example for all of us to follow."

McDonald’s lifetime of service began as a Photo Intelligence Specialist and Combat Aerial Photographer in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. He later went on to a career in the insurance industry and as a professional photographer, all while being heavily involved in the community both as a politician and otherwise.

McDonald has been a member of American Legion Post 121 for more than 50 years, serving as Post Adjutant and organizing the city’s annual Memorial Day Service for more than five decades. He’s been an active member of the Lions since 1973, and as a charter member, he has been a member of Tri-County Toastmasters for 41 years. He also was a member of the Watertown Hospital Board, and more recently, has been a member of the Commission on Aging for 6 years.

Regarding McDonald’s heavy involvement in the community, his wife Barbara had one of the best comments of the night.

"People always say, ‘how did you stay married for 54 years,’" Barb McDonald said. "I said, ‘he was gone a lot.’ Now I know what he was doing."

McDonald said the most special part of the evening for him was that he got to share it with his wife, seven children and many of his grandchildren who were in attendance at the meeting. As for what he loves about the community?

"Right from the beginning, it just became such a typical Americana melting pot," he said. "The city illustrated what America is really about, that people can come together and live in peace. Watertown to me exemplifies what America is really about."

The celebration may have seemed like something of a farewell celebration for McDonald, who has been battling health concerns in recent months. McDonald had a cancerous brain tumor removed in December, which caused him to miss several week of duty. He is receiving ongoing treatment to try to prevent its return.

However, McDonald said he has not yet made a decision whether he will seek reelection in the upcoming fall election. He said he will seek advice from friends and family, and that his decision will depend on his health and how he is feeling when it comes time to file. The filing period for local elections is July 31-Aug. 14