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John McDonald

John McDonald

U.S. ambassador | 30+ years at State Dept. | Class of 1946

Ambassador John McDonald is one of the few living alums who can describe the mood on campus the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

And if only we had the highest national security clearance, the career foreign diplomat, now 95, could likely fill us in on a few international conflicts they didn’t teach in social studies class — from his three decades of State Department assignments in Berlin, Cairo, Frankfurt, Paris, Tehran and other global hot spots.

Long before he headed up the U.S. delegation that negotiated a U.N. treaty against the taking of hostages, McDonald moved to Champaign-Urbana for his father’s new job — ROTC professor of military science. The year was 1939. The campus looked a wee bit different than it does now.

“How big was my surprise — and disappointment — to discover that the university had no dormitories,” says McDonald, who began his studies at the UI two years before the first dorms were inaugurated. “It meant living at home until joining Delta Pi of Delta Kappa Epsilon, the fraternity to which I still belong.”

That’s where he was on Dec. 7, 1941, the day everything changed. “I was a sophomore — sitting with my friends in the living room of our fraternity. The voice of a radio announcer reported that the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. We froze in horror and disbelief.

“Within days, one-third of the fraternity left the university and joined the military.”

Five years later came the other lasting memory of his time in C-U: graduation day from the UI College of Law.

“The thing I remember vividly about my class picture is that we were all standing on the steps of the venerable Altgeld Hall, so named in 1941,” he says, “and I believe that only one member of the class was a woman.”