While helping to raise six children and running a successful business that he launched when he was 21, William McDonald always found time to serve Wakefield, the community where he worked and lived all his life.
He became the state’s youngest licensed funeral director in 1952, his family said, and then founded a funeral home as a one-person operation out of the first floor of the family’s home. Today, McDonald Funeral Homes, which is run by two of his sons, is a Wakefield institution and has a location in Stoneham.
“Everyone who knew Bill liked him,” said Brian McCoubrey, president of The Savings Bank of Wakefield, on whose board Mr. McDonald served for many years. “As a board member he was gracious to everyone on staff, from lower-level employees all the way up.”
Mr. McDonald, who was always Bill or Billy to his many friends, died in his Wakefield home April 26. He was 84, and his health had declined due to a variety of ailments.
The Savings Bank has a mandatory retirement age for board members, but right after Mr. McDonald retired in 2004, he was elected an honorary trustee.
“Bill was brought on because he had such a visible role in this community,” McCoubrey said of Mr. McDonald’s role on the bank board. “Any of us who knew him as a funeral director knew that he had an amazing way of dealing with families in tragic circumstances. He was so calming, just had a wonderful way with people.”
Mr. McDonald’s son William Jr. of Lynnfield, who now runs McDonald Funeral Homes along with his brother David of Stoneham, said he and his siblings “always had a good understanding” of their father’s business.
“This line of work is 24-seven, and that’s always the way it’s been,” he said. “It was demanding for him, with six kids to juggle and not many years between us. He was a very hard worker, very dedicated.”
William T. McDonald was born in Wakefield in 1929. He graduated from high school and was not yet 18 when he enlisted in the US Army at the end of World War II, his son William said.
Mr. McDonald was stationed in the Aleutian Islands and returned home to attend Boston University on the GI Bill. He transferred to the New England Institute and graduated with a degree in funeral service in 1949.
He had known he wanted to go into the funeral business since high school, his son said, and got the idea from a family friend who ran a funeral home in Lawrence.
After serving as an apprentice, Mr. McDonald purchased a house on Yale Avenue in Wakefield that had been a doctor’s office, using funds from the GI Bill’s home loan program. He converted the first floor into an area for the business and lived on the second floor with his parents, who helped out while their son got the funeral home running.
Mr. McDonald renovated the property several times during the 60 years he was the funeral home’s director, said his son, who added that the building is now considered a town landmark.
“My father was a very gracious man, with a great ability to relate to people,” he said. “He had the gift of compassion and understanding and was really suited to his work in the business, as well as in the community.”
Mr. McDonald met Ruth Sweeney of Andover when she drove some of her relatives to the Yale Avenue home to visit Mr. McDonald’s mother. They married in 1954.
“He and Ruth were so suited to each other; they had such an exemplary marriage,” said David Solimine Sr., a longtime friend who runs a funeral home in Lynn.
Solimine recalled that when he began his own funeral home business, Mr. McDonald was “a great support and mentor, who did all he could to help me get established.”
Mr. McDonald often shared hearses and limousines with Solimine and would also take over for him if he and his wife needed a night off.
“Billy would cover for me, and we would help each other out,” Solimine said. “For him, it was never just about business. He was so considerate and really cared about helping people.”
Mr. McDonald served on the board of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association and in Wakefield belonged to the Citizens Scholarship Foundation, the YMCA, the Rotary Club, the Lodge of Elks, the Knights of Columbus, and the West Side Social Club, a charitable organization. He also was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
A service has been held for Mr. McDonald, who in addition to his wife and two sons leaves three daughters, Patricia Graham and Maureen Duffy, both of Stoneham, and Kathleen Susca of Tolland, Conn.; another son, John of Lynnfield; a brother, Joseph of Concord, N.H.; and 16 grandchildren.
“For people in the industry of funeral service, the name Bill McDonald meant character, ability, decency, and respect,” Solimine said. “He was a fine, fine gentleman.”