The city of Watertown lost one of its most popular and influential residents last week when Mayor KJ McDonald died on Thursday, Oct. 4. McDonald, who was 81 years old, died after a nearly year-long battle with metatastic melanoma.
Born in Watertown in 1930, McDonald spent much of his life serving his hometown both as a politician and as an active community member. In addition to serving as mayor, city council member and state representative, McDonald was active in the local American Legion post, the Watertown Lions Club, the Tri-County Toastmasters, his church, community theater and much more.
While McDonald was well-known throughout the area for his political service, his community involvement and his dedication to the city, those who knew him — and few people in Watertown didn’t — will remember him just as much for his charming personality and seemingly endless energy as anything else. Always quick with a joke, one of his favorite expressions or just a friendly greeting, McDonald seemed to know everybody in town, and everybody seemed to know him.
“KJ, he was the (energizer bunny),” said longtime friend Mike Burns, who had McDonald serve as the best man in his wedding. “He was involved in everything. He loved being around people. He was loquacious, like everybody knows, and he never seemed to quit. Even in his dying days, he was still going to meetings. He was very personable, very easy to like.”
As popular as he was as a person, McDonald will likely be best remembered for his decades of political service to his city and state. McDonald first served as Watertown’s mayor in 1976-77 before being elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1977. He served seven terms in the House, from 1978-91. Most recently, McDonald became mayor in 2005, when, as a city council member, he was appointed to the position to replace Steve Sarvi, whose National Guard unit was deployed. McDonald was subsequently elected to the position in 2006, 2008 and 2010.
“I had a lady stop in the other day and say that with his hat and his bow tie, he just looked like a mayor,” said city council member Rick Mann, who grew close to McDonald during their time on the council. “He was a great image for what a mayor in small town should look like. He had the look, he had the passion, and he loved the community. … He loved Watertown and it’s residents, plain and simple.”
McDonald’s political career, however, only scratches the surface of his involvement in his hometown. McDonald was a member of American Legion Post 121 for more than 50 years, a member of the Watertown Lions Club for nearly 40 years, and a charter member of the Tri-County Toastmaster’s Club 41 years ago, a group to which he still belonged this year.
McDonald, a Korean War veteran who served as a Photo Intelligence Specialist and Combat Aerial Photographer in the U.S. Air Force, later turned his love of photography into a professional career, frequently documenting and preserving Watertown’s history through his photos. His patriotism was evident in his work through the American Legion, where he organized the local Memorial Day program for the last 50 years.
“He mainlined a higher level of activism in politics and civic affairs than anybody I know of, and I loved him for it,” Burns said. “I’m sure heaven will be a livelier place with him there.”
As much as McDonald loved his country, he loved his hometown even more. Many would say McDonald’s love of Watertown rubbed off on the rest of the community as well, with McDonald serving as a perfect role model for community pride and activism. That mindset certainly rubbed off on his children, including son Joe, who is currently serving his first term in the Minnesota State House of Representatives after previously serving four years as the Mayor of Delano and seven years as a city council member in that city.
“He had a huge influence on me,” Joe McDonald said. “My dad was my hero, and I always wanted to be just like my father when I was a boy.”
KJ McDonald may have had a big influence on his own family and children, but judging by the turnout at a recent city council meeting, when local leaders gathered to express their appreciation to the outgoing mayor, he must have had a gigantic impact on the entire community. Approximately 100 people turned out at the July meeting for the surprise honor, including friends, family, local political leaders and other community leaders. The day was even proclaimed KJ McDonald Day in Minnesota by the state senate.
It was shortly after that day in July that McDonald expressed just what it was that he loved about Watertown so much, and why he spent so much of his life devoted to making it a better place.
“Right from the beginning, it just became such a typical Americana melting pot,” he said at the time. “The city illustrated what America is really about, that people can come together and live in peace.”
McDonald was diagnosed with Stage 4 metatastic melanoma in December after a tumor was discovered near the right side of his brain in late November. He had surgery to remove the cancerous tumor, but continued to receive aggressive treatment throughout the last year.
Mann has been serving as acting mayor in McDonald’s absence over the last month, and will continue to do so for the next month. Mann is running against Charlotte Johnson in the city’s mayoral election, which will be held Nov. 6.
The funeral service will be held on Saturday, Oct. 13, at 11 a.m. at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Watertown. There will also be a visitation at the church from 4-8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 12.
Judging from the massive amount of support and well wishes Joe McDonald says his family is thankful to have received from hundreds of community members in the days immediately after his father’s death, there will likely be a large turnout for both the visitation and funeral, as people remember McDonald not just for his service to the community, but for his carefree and fun-loving personality as well.
“He was so much fun,” Joe McDonald said. “I think that’s one thing I hear a lot, how great a man he was and how fun he was. He really enjoyed being part of Watertown, from going to ball games to church festivals to community events. He just wanted to soak up all the town, the community and the people could offer.”