PROFILE: Sarah McDonald

September 3, 2021
By T Michele Walker

Sitting in the middle of Sarah McDonald’s coffee table is a fascinating turtle sculpture, carved to look as if it was emerging from the water. One cheerio was also sitting on the table, placed carefully under its mouth. “Don’t touch the cheerio,” said Sarah with a laugh. “My grandchild left it there and I just don’t have the heart to move it.”

That sentimental gesture, saving her grandchild’s cheerio snack for the turtle, tells you all you need to know about Sarah McDonald.

Sarah’s grandchildren, Lola age 6, and Quinn, age 3, live in the Washington D.C. area and have just started at their school called Mundo Verde, a Spanish immersion school.

“My son Jamie lives in DC and the grandchildren started school yesterday,” Sarah said. “I would like to thank you personally for helping educate my grandchildren with your tax dollars. The district is funded through tax dollars, so they go all day, every day. They serve lunch, it’s a wonderful program and everything is free in the district.”

These are the things that are near and dear to Sarah’s heart, such as family and service to the community.

A long-time member of the League of Women Voters, Sarah said she joined the League in thelate 1970s. It is abundantly clear that Sarah McDonald cares deeply for her community and has made what has turned out to be a lifelong commitment to the League of Women Voters.

“My son Patrick is 49, and Jamie is 46 and I joined when Jamie was a baby in Saint Louis, which is where the League started. The League grew out of the women’s suffrage movement which passed the 19th amendment. The question was, we’ve got the vote, now how do we use it.”

Sarah admits that even when she joined the league in the 1970s, women had not been traditionally involved in voting at all and were considered too weak for politics.

“The League was formed to teach women how to use the vote and to teach them how to get the facts, how to weigh the facts as it pertained to candidates or issues that would be on the ballot, and it just went on from there.”

Patrick and Jamie McDonald were born three years apart, close enough that they were friends and far enough apart that they had their interests all of their interests are all the same sports.”

Sarah recalled going into labor with Patrick and the trip to the hospital with her husband, Jay, who was a doctor, but was just as nervous as she was. “When I finally did go into labor, we’re still in Detroit and we’re walking across the drive into the hospital. Jay says to me, ‘You had better be in labor or I’m going to be so embarrassed.’ And I said, ‘You know, I’ve never done this before.’ He had the nerve to be aggressive while the baby was already giving me enough pressure.”

Sarah and Jay had two sons, Patrick, who now lives in Boston with his wife and their dogs, and Jamie who lives in the District of Columbia with his wife and two children. “I love Washington,” said Sarah. “I love the smell of power.”

Sarah was born in Covington, Kentucky, and raised in Hamilton, Ohio. “I went to school in Detroit and met my husband there. Fast forward to when we were living in Birmingham and a lot of the women would ask, ‘Where did you meet your husband?’” Sarah said in her best Alabama accent. “It annoyed me so much. I answered, ‘In a bar in Detroit.’ And they all said, ‘Oh, we’ll put you on our prayer list.’ It is true, I did meet Jay in a bar in Detroit, but we had mutual friends and it wasn’t quite as sordid as it sounded.”

Sarah was a student at the University of Detroit while Jay was attending medical school at Wayne State. Marriage soon followed and the newlyweds moved to Portland, Oregon for Jay’s internship. “We were married two weeks before he graduated. It broke my mother’s heart that she couldn’t put ‘Doctor McDonald’ on the wedding invitation.”

After the internship in Portland, followed by residency in Detroit, St. Louis for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, “which lasted 16 years,” Sarah added. “So, he was at Washington University, I mean we were at Washington University for 16 years, and then it was Birmingham where he was chair of the department of pathology at UAB.”

Starting married life working as a medical technologist, Sarah worked at the labs, but quit a month before their first child was born. “It was about three and a half weeks too early,” Sarah laughed. “Because you can only organize so many things, clean so many times. I was bored out of my mind.”

Years later, the McDonald’s took their time searching for the perfect second home before deciding on Boca Grande. “We’d looked on at the Alabama coast known as the Redneck Riviera and we looked at Gulf Shores. On a Sunday morning, we were staying at a Holiday Inn on the beach, and I was out walking on the beach thinking, ‘Oh, this is so quaint to be on a beach.’ I looked up and there’s a guy in a wife-beater shirt with a beer in his hand at eight in the morning on Sunday. I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’” 

They bought their home in Boca Grande in 1998 but stayed part-time in the beginning. “We always came at Christmas. The first time I came to Florida was years before Christmas, and I did not like it. Only because I didn’t think it seemed very Christmassy. There’s no snow, but then when I came back and started thinking about it, we liked it a lot. Maybe I was more mature at that point. And none of my in-laws will ever read this, but I didn’t want to spend Christmas with my in-laws.”

Sarah appreciates the unique atmosphere of Boca Grande. “I always thought of myself as a big city girl, but I like the fact that it’s very small. This is my second summer in Boca Grande. Last year was because of COVID.”

Sarah’s husband Jay died two years ago, and Boca Grande has become her haven. “Last season, it got lonely, but I drive the golf cart in to pick up the mail. I call it my ‘AC appreciation trip’ because when I get home, I appreciate the air conditioning so much more. I know more people now and I’m busier. I just like the small-town atmosphere and the people I’ve met have been great.”

Sarah discovered a new passion for acting when she joined the Royal Palm Players. “I did their first dinner theater, where I played the drunken maid. That was back in 2019 and into 2020. That was my first time back after Jay died. I did not think about it much, but as soon as I got on the island it was painful.”

The laughter and the act of performing on stage have ignited a spark for Sarah. It’s also provided an avenue for healing. “We all laughed so much. It helped me get back into the swing of things.”

Now on the board for the Royal Palm Players, Sarah is looking forward to performing in two productions this season. “I’m doing the ‘Inherit the Wind’, the staged reading in November and then I’m in the comedy, ‘I Hate Shakespeare.’ I’m excited about that one because it is so genuinely funny.”

Sarah isn’t completely new to the theater world, “I did play Mother Goose in my first-grade play,” she joked. “So you see, I am an experienced thespian, but I love it and I’m not nervous at all. Well, that’s not completely true. I didn’t get nervous during the play until the night before George and Laura Bush came to see the show. I woke up the night before in a panic, thinking, ‘My God! The president’s coming!’ I was nervous for just a little bit in bed in the middle of the night, but then I was fine.”

As much as Sarah loves her newfound activity of acting, she says, “My main activity is serving as president of the League of Women Voters of Lee County. I’ve been president here since May. I was president in St. Louis, then I was state president in Alabama three times, Birmingham president three times and now I’m here in Lee County Florida. You have to die to get off a League board or move out of state and that didn’t work for me.”

Sarah’s term as president in Lee County did have a precarious start. “I had a hip replacement on May 10th in Boston, not here, because you can’t live alone after surgery when you’re still on hard drugs. So I went to my son who lives outside of Boston, and I had it done at Mass General. I was there for five weeks, and my daughter-in-law should be given sainthood. She had her mother-in-law last sit on the sofa for five weeks.”

Hip replacement surgery aside, Sarah stays in fabulous shape by playing tennis, walking, and working out. “I started back playing tennis in June. I still use the ball machine, but Sunday I played for real. I did not distinguish myself, let’s just say. I need to get more playtime because the ball machine doesn’t talk back, and the ball comes exactly to the same place every time. I need some real play before my buddies come back from hiding up north.”

It was on a recent walk on the beach where a woman struck up a conversation with Sarah. “There were all these little dead crabs on the beach. A woman stopped me, and I asked her, ‘What caused this?’ She said, ‘Well, a guy told me it’s mating season.’ I said, ‘Does that mean they all died with smiles on their faces?’”

Sarah reflects on her life here in Boca Grande. “I’m a totally different person than I was before my husband died because I’ve become more independent. I’ll do what I want to do, thank you very much.”

Then she added with a wink, “Within the realm of legality and morality, of course.”