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Weekly 150: J.R. ‘Bob’ McDonald

McKenzie’s Kindest Soul

Posted 8/11/20

Some of my fondest memories growing up come from my recollections of me as a little boy spending time with my granddad, Verdell Story. He was born and raised here, and when he returned home in the …

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Weekly 150: J.R. ‘Bob’ McDonald

McKenzie’s Kindest Soul


Some of my fondest memories growing up come from my recollections of me as a little boy spending time with my granddad, Verdell Story. He was born and raised here, and when he returned home in the early 1980s after his career in California, it was as if he never left. Most of his friends and acquaintances welcomed him home.

I was glued to my grandpa’s hip when we moved from California. Most mornings, he and I started our day at the coffee shop. From what I remember, we spent quite a few mornings on Highland Drive going to either Druthers or the Dixie Cup by the old Shannon Lee’s motel.

I must have had breakfast before we left home because for the life of me I don’t remember eating in either restaurant. What I do remember is spending most of my time going from table to table talking with my friends, all of whom were at least 50 to 60 years older than me.

Three individuals stick out in my mind all these years later; Max Manley, Joe Gooch and Bob McDonald. These morning visits with the cast of characters taught me the value of friendship and a quarter.

Thirty-plus years later, I still count Mr. McDonald as a friend. He has never failed to smile and provide a friendly greeting. As a senior in high school, he offered me the chance of a lifetime. He was willing to hire me to work for him around his real estate office and would prepare me to take the real estate exam. Naturally, I decided against my best interest and didn’t go into real estate but as they say, hindsight is 20-20.

This week, I am dedicating the Weekly 150 to one of the kindest souls in McKenzie, J.R. “Bob” McDonald.

The McDonald family came to the United States from Scotland in 1838. In 1838, David and Margaret McDonald in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Two of their children, John and Thomas Washington (1800–1859), migrated to Tennessee. Thomas settled near what would become Blooming Grove Church. In 1858, he donated six acres of land for the construction of the church and cemetery grounds. He would marry Susan M. Alexander; the union produced 10 children, one of whom was David Allison (1831–1901).

David was married twice. His first marriage was to Mary Alexander with nine children. His second marriage was to Kisar Ann Green (1851–1914) with four children, one of whom was James Milton McDonald (1889-1947).

Milton was married twice with a total of six children, three with Alta Cutler and three with Emma Alice Thompson. The union between Milton and Alice brought James Robert into the world.

Bob’s family moved around in his early years, first moving to Michigan for work and then to Texas hoping the climate would aid his father’s health. In 1937, five-year-old Bob McDonald first laid eyes on his new hometown, McKenzie.

Located in a wooded area, the family settled near Bethel University’s old field house. Muddy roads lead their way into town. The McDonald clan lived by modest means, as a grade-schooler Bob’s mother sewed him a corduroy jacket with buttons. Some of his classmates had similar jackets but with zippers and they made fun of him.

He and his brother, Paul, earned money by delivering newspapers. On rainy days their bikes would get stuck in the mud and they would be forced to clean them off to continue on the routes. Sometimes they used their mule, Old Kate, to make the delivery.

When he was eleven, he split his time working at Felts’ Drug Store during the day and Covington’s Drug Store in the evening. There was work to be done at home as well; Saturdays meant plowing until dinner with a treat in the afternoon when their father gave the children enough money for the picture show, which was located in the parking lot behind Super Drugs.

On school days, he walked home from school. During the fall season, he would fill his pockets with pecans from Doug Moor’s pecan orchard. A few of the trees will remain on Stonewall Street near Moore Subdivision.

As he grew older, he noticed while he continued riding his bicycle and delivering papers, some of his classmates were driving cars. He seldom missed a day of work, but when he was 15 and a sophomore in high school, he missed two days in a row.

In an interview from December 2000, Bob reflected on one of the hardest days of his life. Mrs. Ruth Dinkins summoned him from class, telling the young man of his father’s death.

“Nobody took me home or anything,” he said with a tone of disbelief. “I walked all the way home.” When he returned to his newspaper route, a customer demanded, “Why in the world didn’t you bring my paper?” Bob always the gentleman responded, “My dad died.”

As the oldest son, responsibility came early. “I believe I was 15 when I borrowed my first money. I went to McKenzie Banking Company and sat down before Doc Bell and told him I wanted to buy a pig for $15.”

He secured the loan, bought the pig, and raised it as part of Mr. Otis Cox’s agriculture program that sold pigs to the West Memphis Stockyard. Bob said of his pig, “I made a good profit. I was fond of that pig.”

It was about that same time the McDonald home received electricity. Bob sold a horse for $50 and used the money to pay Bill McElroy to wire the old house.

As a junior in high school, Bob was selected to attend Boys’ State, where he became interested in Government.

After high school, Bob married the love of his life, Sarah Marie Maynard. Their union brought two sons into the world, Mark Edwin and James Michael.

He told the story of the first time he saw Sarah who was living in Paris at the time but was in McKenzie visiting her Aunt Polly Rucker, “She was walking toward Main Street and as she walked down the hill, I thought she was pretty; I never dreamed I’d later marry her.”

The couple’s first son, Mark, was a little boy when Bob hitch-hiked to Memphis for work. The family later joined him after he found stable employment.

For two-and-a-half years he worked for the City of Memphis after he took a placement test by the personnel office. They sent him to John Gaston Hospital, working as an assistant food purchasing agent.

He later worked with a food brokerage company where he met Charlie Lubin, founder of Sarah Lee. The opportunity finally arose to return to McKenzie after taking a job with the Tetley Tea Company.

He shared the story of his second son’s birth at Dr. Edwards’ office. “I was right there with her (Sarah) when he was born. I remember how happy I felt going across and sitting in the city park. I had a new son!”

After 18 years of service in the Kemper Insurance Group, he was “displaced, fired, however you want to put it,” he said. “All the big companies were downsizing.”

Bob and another associate were called to Jackson for a 1:15 sales conference, with the company ”big shots” flying in on their company plane. The gist of the conference was their dismissal.

Having given his all to the business only to be let go after becoming the regional sales manager, Bob had no interest in returning to insurance.

“I had to have a job so I taught preparatory classes, preparing prospective agents for their jobs in all aspects of insurance.” He also spent several years teaching Dale Carnegie classes.

Eventually, he worked with a local real estate office for four years before deciding to go into business for himself. He had always heard, “if you want something done, you need to go straight to the home office.” With that in mind, he opened his agency “The Home Office.”

From 1984-1988, Bob hosted a radio show, “Point of Opinion.” The weekly, 30-minute show focused on a different guest each week. Bob recorded the shows to help preserve a piece of local history.

One such interview was with Dr. Marvin Alexander. The story tells how Dr. Alexander escorted a patient to Texas, while on the trip, the doctor met his future wife and brought her back to Tennessee; thus leading to their marriage and birth of Jim Alexander.

The life of Bob McDonald can not be summed up in 2000 words or fewer. He was played numerous roles in McKenzie including serving as a charter member of the McKenzie Jaycees, president of the Lions Club, president of the McKenzie Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the McKenzie Recreation Commission, vice-chairman of the McKenzie Housing Authority, a member of the McKenzie Planning Commission, member of the McKenzie Industrial Board, and served on board of directors fro McKenzie Memorial Hospital. For ten years, he was a member of the McKenzie City Council and served as vice-mayor in his last term.

Bob provided a very important thought in his 2000 interview, “The history of the town is so important. I look back on my year in McKenzie, the people I’ve known, who have made McKenzie what it is, that’s important to me.”

Twenty years later, as I write these weekly stories, Bob’s quote hits home. The names I come across and the memories I try to share truly made McKenzie what it is, and just like Bobby McDonald, that’s important to me.


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