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Home » Campus News Latest » Obituaries » Dr. James “Jim” McDonald ’55

Dr. James Robert McDonald, born 1/28/1934, passed away on 4/20/2020 in Westborough, MA.

It is with great sadness that the family of James Robert McDonald announce his passing  in his home in Westborough. Professor McDonald and his wife, Sharon, had lived in Ann Arbor for almost 50 years before moving last year to be near family in Westborough and the east coast. 

Jim had been in hospice home care for almost eight months prior to his passing and his wife and an aide were by his side at the time of his death. James — known as Jim — moved to Ann Arbor in 1965 with Sharon and their sons, Chris and Sean, to accept the position of Professor in the Geography Department of Eastern Michigan University, a position which he held until his retirement in 2000. 

Jim was born in San Francisco on the 28th of January 1934 to Joseph Harold and Josephine Noland McDonald and spent his early years in San Mateo, California. In 1949, his father accepted the position as Secretary-Treasurer to Arabian-American Oil (Aramco) and the family moved to Bedford Hills, New York, where Jim graduated from Katonah High School in 1951.

Jim graduated from Antioch College in 1955 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Geography and received a Master’s Degree in Geography from the University of Illinois the following year. He then enlisted in the Army for three years and was assigned to the Counter-Intelligence Corps where he learned French in the Army Language School in Monterey before being assigned to La Rochelle, France, where he spent almost two years. 

Upon his return to civilian life, he returned to Illinois and completed his doctoral research on the French region of Brittany in 1964. Prior to accepting the position at EMU, Jim was an Assistant Professor at UCLA for two years. Jim was the recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral Fellowship in 1966 which was spent in Paris; in 1970, he received an NSF Fellowship which was spent in England and Paris; and in 1975 he was granted a Sabbatical Research award which was spent in France and Switzerland.

Among his other awards and grants were National Geographic Society Research Grants; more than a dozen University Research Grants; Michigan Department of Natural Resources Grants; and Social Science Research Council Grants. He and his wife, Sharon, were Guest Lecturers for the American Geographical Society Cruise Programs for six cruises from 1987-1993. 

Jim specialized in the cultural, political, and economic geography of Western Europe, especially France; the geography of rural-to-urban and labor migrations; geographical aspects of environmental assessment and preservation; geography of travel and tourism; and the history of geographic ideas. He is the author of two books, thirty-four professional papers, and forty-two major book reviews in geographical journals. 

Jim’s major interests throughout his adult life, other than his family, were travel — anywhere, but especially France — and all things French. Jim was an avid reader, chiefly of world events (he read The Economist cover to cover every week) and history. He was also a writer and would compose beautiful but thoughtful poetry in an instance. On the lighter side, he was an avid San Francisco 49er fan from the age of twelve when the 49ers were first established, and he was thrilled to see them make it to the Super Bowl in his final year. 

He was also a baseball fan and one of the original members of the first fantasy team: The Baseball Seminar, which was the brainchild of Jim’s college roommate, Bill Gamson ’55, in 1960. Jim was an active member of The Baseball Seminar from its inception until his retirement last year. 

Jim was also a formidable poker player, having the ability to remember every card that was played; his sons often heard the admonition “count the cards” and both became very good players as a result. Jim’s other major interest was birdwatching (or, more accurately, “wildlife watching”), a hobby which he and his wife pursued across continents. Among the things that Jim most prized in life was his family. His wife, Sharon, received two degrees in Zoology from the University of Illinois: a Bachelor’s Degree in 1961 and a Master’s degree in 1964; and in 1975 she received a PhD from the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Michigan. Sharon taught Zoology, Comparative Anatomy, and Ecological Studies at Henry Ford College in Dearborn from 1976 until their joint retirement in 2000. Their elder son, Chris, followed his father into Geography, majoring in it at Dartmouth College. While there, he met and later married fellow graduate Pamela Mitchel, who was not put off by his joining the U.S. Navy. After serving in Japan, on Capitol Hill, and as a small ship Captain (USS SQUALL, PC 7), Chris brought his family on a 15 year tour following in Jim’s footsteps as a European specialist, serving in eight operational and diplomatic assignments in that region until the conclusion of his 30-year Naval career. Retiring in 2012 with the rank of Captain, Chris has continued to serve as a contract European specialist at U.S. facilities in the UK, at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and most recently as a Senior Exercise Analyst for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Chris and Pam have three children: Caitlin, Robert and Douglas. Caitlin graduated from Columbia University and is a Literary Agent at Donald Maass Literary Agency. Her wife, Cassi McDonald (ne Mayersohn) graduated from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, and is a Manager of Training and Change Management at Comcast Business. Robert graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2013 with dual Bachelor of Science degrees: Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. He currently works for DEKA Research and Development, a company out of Manchester NH, where he is the QA Test Manager on the iBOT wheelchair. He is currently taking courses for a Master’s Degree in Applied Biomedical Engineering through Johns Hopkins University. He is married to Ashley Gloeb, a Supervisor at Starbucks. The youngest, Douglas, is also pursuing a dual degree: Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, and Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art and Design at the University of Michigan; he is currently in the fourth year of this five-year program. 

Jim and Sharon’s younger son, Sean, also followed his father into Geography, obtaining a PhD in Economic Geography from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1994. He has been an Associate Professor of Geography at Bentley University since 1997 and is a Senior Partner at the Additional Research Group in Glasgow which provides “Economic Impact Assessment” for public and private sector organizations. Sean graduated from The American University School of International Service, Washington, D. C., in 1984 with a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies, followed by a Masters of Art in History in 1988 from his father’s college, Eastern Michigan University. Sean’s wife, Caroline, received her Nursing/Midwifery degree from the Guilford School of Nursing in Surrey, England, in 1982 and her Master’s Degree from Northeastern University in Boston in 2000. She has been a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at U Mass Memorial in Worcester since 2000. Their eldest son, Liam graduated from the Advanced Math and Science Academy in Marlborough in 2015 and from the University of Kent, England, with an MSc Honours in Music Technology in 2019. He will complete a Master’s Degree in Audio Technology at the University of Wulverhampton in West Midlands, England in September 2020. Their youngest son, Aidan, graduated from Westborough High School in 2019 and is entering his sophomore year at EMU, his grandfather’s school, with a major in Hotel & Restaurant Management. 

Jim was the kindest of men as evidenced by all who knew him, including all of the aides in both home hospice care and private care. His family would like to especially thank the following: Aileen Tant, Danette Duplin, and Devlyn Gilbert for the devotion and love which they showered on Jim. 

However, the mainstay for the family was the unconditional assistance and love shown by his hospice nurse, Sarah Troupe, without whom we would never have been able to cope. Funeral arrangements and cremation were handled by Pickering & Sons Funeral Home in Westborough. A private memorial service will be scheduled at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the Westborough Community Land Trust in Jim’s name. Pickering Westborough Funeral Home.