Tributes flow for judge who made his legal mark

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

He was a judge with a “great sense of humor and a keen sense of professionalism,” character traits that marked the life of John J. (Jack) McDonald, the retired Oakland County Circuit Court jurist who died Aug. 8 after a short battle with cancer.

McDonald’s death came just weeks before he would have celebrated his 80th birthday, a milestone that he seemed destined to share with his longtime friend, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, an octogenarian who died of cancer on Aug. 3.

“He always said he owed a lot to Brooks for securing his appointment to the bench by Governor John Engler,” said retired Oakland County Circuit Judge Rudy Nichols. “And he was forever grateful to the governor for the appointment. He wasn’t at all the type of guy who would forget his roots.”

McDonald, a native of a coal-mining town in eastern Pennsylvania, and Nichols, a product of Flint Northern High School, enjoyed a close friendship over the course of their judicial careers.

“We went out almost daily for lunch and loved to share ‘war stories’ about various cases we were handling,” said Nichols, a former state legislator who spent 25 years on the circuit court bench before retiring in 2015. “‘Noodling’ on legal issues before us, sharing legal thoughts and opinions, truly epitomized our relationship as judicial colleagues.

“Jack always had a great sense of humor and a keen sense of professionalism. He just naturally wove those two together in a way that made him the compassionate yet serious judge he could be,” Nichols added, calling McDonald “one of the most down-to-earth, common sense guys I knew.”

A 1961 graduate of the University of Detroit, McDonald got his first taste of public service in 1974 as a member of the Oakland County board of commissioners. His election win that year would be repeated six times before he accepted an appointment to the circuit court bench in 1993 by then Gov. John Engler. He subsequently was elected to a pair of 6-year terms on the circuit court.

A star football player in high school, McDonald took his gridiron talents to the U of D in 1957, receiving a partial athletic scholarship. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from U of D and landed a teaching job at Western High School following college graduation. He later was awarded a master’s degree from Wayne State before embarking on his legal studies during night classes at Detroit College of Law. His first job in the law was as an assistant prosecutor in Oakland County, a post that paid the princely sum of $12,500 a year in 1970.

Upon his appointment to the bench, McDonald initially spent three years in the family division of the circuit court, an assignment he volunteered for and reunited him with Judge Edward Sosnick, a former colleague in the Oakland County prosecutor’s office.

He then spent 14 years assigned to the general jurisdiction division where he developed a friendship with Judge Joan Young, who retired from the circuit court in 2016.

“Jack was a good friend and a wonderful colleague,” said Young, who noted that McDonald was “deeply committed to doing the best job possible” regardless of his work assignment. “I appointed him presiding judge of the civil-criminal division when I was chief judge. His chambers were next to mine on the second floor-west wing. We often covered for each other and our staffs helped each other.”

And periodically they would have the opportunity to break bread.

“Jack, Rudy Nichols, Colleen O’Brien and I often had lunch together,” Young recalled. “We would talk about cases and politics. We laughed a lot, and teased mercilessly. Jack always had soup for lunch. He loved soup so much that he often wore it back to the courthouse on his tie, his shirt, and once he even managed to spill pea soup on his pants. Of course, he never lived that down.”

Yet, with his homespun sense of humor and strong faith, McDonald never was down for long, said Young.

“Jack was a humble, kind, family man,” she said. “He often would talk about his grandchildren, and was enormously proud when his daughter Julie became a circuit (court) judge. Jack loved his job as a judge.”

McDonald grew up in New Philadelphia, Pa., where his father James owned and operated a gas station with several partners over a period that spanned four decades beginning in the early 1920s. His mother, Alice, worked in a dress factory and was primarily responsible for raising the couple’s four children.

“My dad only had an eighth grade education, but he was a hard worker and a successful businessman,” McDonald related in a 2008 story published in The Legal News. “I worked at the gas station in high school, but I never had any desire to be involved in it long term. I wanted to get out of the coal mining region.”

In 1962, the year after he graduated from U of D, McDonald began a 53-year marriage with his wife Sharon, who died in 2015. The couple raised three children — Michael, Julie, and Patrick John (P.J.) — and were grandparents to Sam, Joe, and Sally.

In 2016, McDonald was married to Joan Strauss, whom he had known since high school and “Joan brought much comfort and joy to Jack during the last three years,” according to the McDonald family.

State Court of Appeals Judge Colleen O’Brien, formerly of the Oakland County Circuit Court, first crossed paths with McDonald when she was in private practice.

“Whenever I had a case assigned to him, I was relieved and pleased,” said O’Brien, a member of the appellate court since 2015. “As a judge, he was fair, well reasoned, pleasant, and kind.”

As a new member of the circuit court bench in 1999, O’Brien said that she regularly sought McDonald’s advice.

Funeral services for McDonald were held Aug. 14 at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Farmington. Rite of Committal took place at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield.

Memorial contributions may be made to the American Cancer Society.

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