John MacDonald of Topeka has probably done more for the cause of education in Kansas than any other one man, and in saying this no disparagement is intended for the scores of men and women who have devoted much of their lives to educational work.
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He may well be distinguished as a pioneer in the method of reason as applied to learning. His kindly personality has left a deep impress for good, and many who have achieved distinction in the different walks of life are indebted to him for their early training. Throughout his career he has evidently been impressed with the importance of the great truth that to educate is more important than to govern, since to train men wisely for self-government is more important than to govern them untrained. He is one of the men who have belped to vitalize education and the school system of the great State of Kansas.
John MacDonald was born February 6, 1843, at Linshader, in the Lewis, a short distance from the Standing Stones of Callernish in the Parish of Uig, in the Hebrides. His birthplace will recall to a great many the land of Sheila, the “Princess of Thule,” made famous in the novel of that name by Black. When he was very small his people removed to the mainland of Scotland, to Gairloch in Wester Ross, where he was reared and where he received his primary education. His subsequent schooling was at a workingmen’s college in London, England, at Cooper’s Institute, New York City, and at other places where he attended night school after his day’s work was over.
When Mr. MacDonald came to the United States in 1866, he found employment as a clerk, and destiny led him in March, 1870, to Kansas. Since that time his home has been in Shawnee County, for nearly forty-seven years, and he has lived continuously in Topeka since 1882.
In the country districts of Shawnee County he did his first work as a Kansas teacher. It is noteworthy that when he was examined for a state certiflcate in 1876, the state superintendent of public instruction was John Fraser, another Scot, a native of Cromarty, who had won the rank and title of brigadier-general in the Union army during the Civil war.
Six years after his coming to Kansas Mr. MacDonald was elected superintendent of schools for Shawnee County, an office in which he served ten years. In that position he was able to impress his ideals upon the many teachers under his supervision, and thus the influence of this kindly and capable educator was greatly extended in scope. In 1898 he was president of the Kansas State Teachers Association, and for a number of years has been president of the Educational Press Association of America, and also a member of the board of directors of the National Education Association.
Since December, 1888, Mr. MacDonald has been publisher of the Weatern School Journal, a periodical of wide circulation and influence among educators in the West. Mr. MacDonald has never received a collegiate degree, and for that reason he sometimes refers to himself as not being an educated man. The truth is that few men in Kansas are as thoroughly versed in the classics or in the more practical modern branches.
Though he left the Highlands of Scotland nearly fifty years ago, he can speak, read and write the language of his ancestors. He has an intense love for the Celtic language, especially for the Gaelic branch of it, and for many years he has made a comparative study of the entire group of Celtie languages. In his library are Gaelic, Manx and Welsh Bibles, a Breton and an Irish Testament, and he feels that he has conquered them all except the Welsh. Mr. MacDonald hopes and believes that his last earthly words will be spoken in the Gaelie he loves so well.
He was reared in and has always been faithful to the Presbyterian faith. He is one of the members of that circle of Topeka professional and business men known as the Saturday Night Club, of which he was one of the organizers and of which he is now critic. In conclusion there should be a reference to the well known fact that America attributes her greatness to its cosmopolitan population, and it is to such men as Mr. MacDonald that Kansas owes some of those qualities at least which have made its body of citizenship and the commonwealth itself rank among the first of the states in the Union.