If you’re looking to rally the masses around an important cause, you want Nancy McDonald in your corner. McDonald wasn’t born in Tulsa, but her Midwest roots inspired that undeniable “can do” Tulsa spirit that has greatly influenced the city’s character.
A medical professional, international traveler, wife, mother, community leader, civil rights advocate and so much more, the 84-year-old has guided the city through some pivotal moments in history.
Where did you go to school/university? Why?
I grew up on a farm in northeast Nebraska and attended District No. 19, a one-room country schoolhouse with eight grades and 14 students. I graduated from Beemer High School in 1953. There were 20 students in my graduating class. My parents put a great deal of value on education, and so I remember them saying to me many times, “You will go to college.” I attended the University of Omaha, now the University of Nebraska at Omaha, for three years, before transferring to the School of Medical Technology at the University of Nebraska Medical School for 12 months of specialized training and receiving my Bachelor of Science degree.
I was not sure I wanted to be a medical technologist, so my freshman year in college, I took a job washing dishes in a laboratory. I fell in love with the work and, upon graduating, was hired to manage a laboratory for four pathologists doing work for many hospitals in Nebraska.
How did you meet your husband, Joe?
I met Joseph McDonald when he was in medical school. I was doing my one year of medical technology training, and when he graduated from medical school, we got married and went to San Bernardino Charity Hospital in San Bernardino, California, for his internship. I worked in the laboratory and taught in the School of Medical Technology affiliated with UCLA. This was the first time I experienced people living in extreme poverty. There were many families from Mexico who were seeking medical care at the charity hospital. They would sleep on the hospital grounds.
What was one of your most defining moments in life?
A defining moment in my personal life was in 1959 when Joe, who was engaged in a USAF Medical program, received his orders to go to Yalova, Turkey. We took a space heater, a kerosene stove, a kerosene water heater and a wringer washing machine with us to Turkey as we would be living in a small village about 18 kilometers from MainSite AFB, Karamursel, Turkey. The base was a communication base located on the Sea of Marmara, and there was no base housing. I shopped at the local bazaar for fresh fruits and vegetables as the base (exchange store) had limited selections of meat and staples. I learned to barter, even for eggs. This assignment gave us an opportunity to travel to Europe and spend time in Greece and all parts of Turkey. We were assigned to Lackland AFB for Joe’s residency in anesthesia and MacDill AFB. Joe resigned his commission in 1966 and joined Anesthesia Associates serving St. John’s Hospital in Tulsa.
A defining moment in my volunteer experiences was when I served as president of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma. In 1977, the council experienced the murder tragedy of the three girls attending Camp Scott. I “grew up” in volunteer service that year as I made difficult decisions along with the executive director and the board as to the future of Girl Scouting in our community. It was our decision to close Camp Scott, and I began discussions with the Jack Zink Foundation about opening a camp on the Zink Ranch. I am proud of the fact that Girl Scouting is a thriving organization serving many girls in our community.
What age do you feel right now and why?
Well, it just depends. I have been in a wheelchair for the past three years, so in many ways, that has hindered my engagement in many activities. I don’t think about my age. I just enjoy each day and try to make the very most of it.
Tell me about your family.
We have four wonderful children and eight super-wonderful grandchildren, and then we have a wonderful relationship with a young man I tutored at the Tulsa Boys’ Home. He now lives in France and has two children whom we claim as grandchildren. I also have numerous projects and programs that I still engage in although, I must admit, I have slowed down in the past couple of years.
How would your friends describe you?
I suspect my friends would probably describe me as a visionary, hard worker, tenacious.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
People would be surprised to know I was a cheerleader in high school and on the rifle team for the University of Nebraska.
If you could witness any event in the past, present or future, what would it be?
I would have liked to have witnessed how women organized to get the right to vote. It must have been incredible.
I would like to watch and be a part of how we move forward to acquire equal rights for LGBTQ persons. We have come a long way, but there are still many things that need to be addressed. I started working for the rights of LGBTQ people in 1987 when our daughter “came out.” Joe and I started the first PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in Oklahoma, and I served as national president in 1996. I testified in Congress against the Defense of Marriage Act and also the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
I would like to be present in the future to watch my grandchildren and their families and how they manage their lives.
What was a “worst time” and how did you pull through it?
Probably the worst time was dealing with the Girl Scout murders. It had a huge impact on my family, and I worried about how it would all work out. It made me question the value of volunteering, and I had to decide whether I would continue to engage in volunteering. Part of the creed of my church is “service to others.” I took that very seriously. Girl Scouts was so fortunate to have an outstanding executive director (Bonnie Brewster) and a solid board that saw all of us through that tragedy.
Volunteering was serious business, and I learned how to work with local and national media, law enforcement and the families through the tragedy. It was another defining moment in my life.
How did you become involved with Girl Scouts?
Growing up, we were kind of isolated in the country and my mother was concerned about socialization. There was a Girl Scout troop in town, and she arranged for me to join and I earned my Curved Bar (then the name of the highest award in Girl Scouts). I was asked to be on the Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma board and became president of the council in 1976.
Tell me how your involvement started with Tulsa Public Schools and the desegregation of Booker T. Washington High School.
Tulsa Public Schools was ordered by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court to desegregate the schools built for segregation. Simultaneously, TPS was opening up the first open-space classroom with a continuous learning curriculum. Joe and I thought this would be ideal for our second son, but the district would not allow any transfers. Because of the court order, hate was running rampant in this city.
A small group of white and black parents was offering an alternative to forced busing and negotiated with the board of education to demonstrate the concept of voluntary busing. We were given permission to develop Burroughs Little School on the Burroughs Elementary School grounds. It was a huge success. At that time, the student population was 60% white, 40% black. Carver Junior High was closed in 1971 and in 1973 the Burroughs Little School parents asked to reopen Carver as TPS’s first integrated middle school. We were successful in getting 175 white students to join 125 black students and reopened Carver in September 1973.
The 10th Circuit Court ordered Booker T. Washington to be desegregated by the fall of 1973. Plans for forced busing were proposed, but no one could argue with a volunteer plan. At that time, the black community asked to have the student population 50% white, 50% black and everyone agreed. I was asked to chair the committee to recruit 600 white students. and organized about 70 meetings that summer to accomplish the goal. The rest is history.
What concerns you today?
What concerns me is what this world will be like for my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. What kind of city will Tulsa be? What about climate change? What about all the violence we are experiencing? Will we ever have gun control? What is the future of public education?
What is a favorite Tulsa memory?
Being at Windycrest Sailing Club at Lake Keystone with all of our family, sailing and enjoying the lake. We are still members today.
Describe a perfect weekend in Tulsa or elsewhere.
A perfect weekend is when all of the children are home and we can have a good time together. Or, when Joe and I get to travel to their homes and spend time with them.
What do you miss the most in Tulsa?
It has been such a joy to watch Tulsa grow and expand. I love the river and the beautiful sunsets. I love our neighborhood. I love the people of Tulsa. We are so fortunate to have a giving community that cares deeply about one another and citizens who are willing to give their time and resources to make it better for those less fortunate. Of course, I miss friends who have left us. At my age, this happens far too often, but I cherish the memories that I had with them. I worry about the declining enrollment in TPS.
What are the most significant changes you’ve experienced in Tulsa?
So many things have changed in Tulsa. Gathering Place is such a gift from George Kaiser, and his support for so many causes and good things that happen in this community is incredible. I’ve watched the revitalization of downtown. The spirit of philanthropy continues to amaze me, and it seems to continue to grow in areas such as the development of the River Parks and the Tulsa Zoo. Also, the development of the neighborhood parks is just amazing.