Donald MacGillis, a former Boston Globe editorial writer and an ardent lover of the outdoors, died Wednesday after a 50-foot fall while hiking Maine’s Mount Katahdin, a mountain he loved and knew well.
MacGillis, 74, of Pittsfield, embarked on the expedition with his 25-year-old nephew late Tuesday morning. They set up camp near Chimney Pond, then headed toward the Knife Edge trail, a grueling and narrow mile-long scramble that overlooks acre after acre of woodlands and basin lakes.
But the weather took an unexpected turn that afternoon. A heavy fog obscured their view and a stiff wind threatened to topple them to the side, leaving them stranded atop the peak. MacGillis’s nephew finally reached a Baxter State Park ranger by phone shortly after midnight Wednesday. The ranger advised the duo to shelter in place until first light.
Midway through the night, MacGillis lost his footing, falling dozens of feet and suffering severe trauma. Reached again by phone, a ranger said they would send a team to the duo’s location at daylight. But a thick fog cover Wednesday morning prevented a Blackhawk helicopter from reaching the hikers until late morning. MacGillis was taken to a nearby hospital around 10:30 a.m. in critical condition from the fall and hypothermia from a night spent in freezing temperatures. His nephew, who was uninjured but also hypothermic, was airlifted from the mountain an hour later. He was released from the hospital later that day.
MacGillis’s son, Alec, also a longtime journalist, announced his father’s death on Twitter on Thursday morning, ushering in a flood of condolences and newsroom stories of MacGillis’s professionalism, humanity, and humor. Alec told the Globe he last spoke to his father Sunday. He recalls him being downright giddy about the trip back to the mountain he admired so much and had visited so many times before.
“Luck was against him this time,” said George Wislocki, a friend and hiking companion of MacGillis for more than 50 years. “That’s the thing with big mountains; you will love them but they don’t love you back.”
All, I am very sorry to report the death of my father, newspaper journalist Donald MacGillis, after a hiking accident on Mt Katahdin in Maine. He was the consummate local/metro newsman in his career as an editor at the Berkshire Eagle & Boston Globe, and he was my ultimate model.— Alec MacGillis (@AlecMacGillis) October 8, 2020
MacGillis graduated from Yale University in 1968, with a degree in English. He then worked as a reporter for the Hartford Courant before serving in the Army as a medic for two years. After a two-decade career serving as editor in chief and editorial page editor at The Berkshire Eagle, MacGillis moved to The Boston Globe in 1995, where he served as an editorial writer focusing on energy, the environment, science, and medicine.
After a tsunami tore through Indonesia in late 2004, MacGillis embarked on a medical relief vessel alongside doctors and nurses from Mass. General Hospital to report on the devastation in Banda Aceh. In one dispatch, he described two men reuniting at a makeshift refugee camp built upon a former soccer field: “The men hugged and wept, joyful that each other lived, stricken to tell each other of those who didn’t.”
“It’s an inadequate understatement to say that Don was among the nicest people to ever come through our doors — and one of the most talented,” wrote Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory. “His Globe career spanned from 1995 to his retirement in 2012, much of that spent on the editorial board with a sharp eye and a nuanced pen, as well as on the national desk, where he brought a strong dose of sophistication and wisdom to our coverage. As important, perhaps more important, Don fostered genuine and meaningful relationships all around the room.”
“MacGillis regarded journalism as the noblest of professions. A newsman through and through, he loved breaking the news and demanded that journalists dig deep and investigate and report the sides of the story the public wasn’t getting,” said Kevin Moran, The Eagle’s executive editor told the paper Thursday.
After his retirement, MacGillis remained active in the journalism community, serving as a chairman of the Eagle’s advisory board and regularly arranging rendezvous with his former Globe colleagues.
“He was a linchpin of so many communities,” said Renée Loth, former editor of the Globe’s Editorial Page. “After all of us semi-retired, he kept our community together, organizing lunches at Shanti on Dorchester Avenue anytime he came into Boston for any reason from the Berkshires."
Despite working in Boston for well over a decade, MacGillis never relinquished his residency in the Berkshires, instead opting for an apartment in Brighton. He always wanted to have a connection to the mountains.
Loth recalls that on his rare days off from the Globe, MacGillis would head to Katahdin with a group of longtime friends. It wasn’t until three months ago that he finally relented and purchased a smartphone. The pandemic had forced his weekly hiking group to limit the number of attendees at outings and he kept missing the signups because his flip phone couldn’t receive e-mails.
He traveled twice a year to Italy to assist his daughter, Lucy, in the harvesting and pruning of olives at her farm. The “avid outdoorsman” was no doubt “splitting wood with an ax to warm his house, up until the present day," mused Loth. He hiked regularly with his grandchildren and nephew. He is survived by them, as well as his wife, Ingrid; son, Alec; and daughter, Lucy.