Long before “giving back” became a watchword for today’s social conscience, Mary Jane Jagger McDonald ’59 wrote the book on it. She was, quite simply, an expert on giving. It’s the first attribute that former Denison President Michele T. Myers noted in her reminiscence that was read at Mary Jane’s memorial service in Swasey Chapel in October. “She loved her job,” said Myers, “because she believed in giving back—in countless ways, always without fanfare, as if it were the most normal thing to do. And she never stopped giving.”
Mary Jane, 81, died in Granville on August 6. A Phi Beta Kappa member of Denison’s Class of 1959, she was vice president emerita of University Resources and Public Affairs and had served the administrations of five Denison presidents before her retirement in 2000. Working with those presidents, she and the board of trustees led major capital campaigns that raised the institution’s endowment from $17 million to more than $500 million. The advancement program she created launched the College resoundingly into the 21st century, funding stunning new buildings and establishing robust scholarships and faculty support. She was a quiet powerhouse who was a major force in building the Denison of today.
The first woman vice president at Denison, Mary Jane was responsible not only for the College’s fundraising programs, but also for alumni and parent relations, and for public affairs, which included publications and news/press relations. A consummate team-builder, Mary Jane was revered by her staff for her fair-mindedness and uninhibited sense of humor. She elicited excellence by expecting excellence, and by exhibiting the confidence in her team that inspired great work. Mentoring judiciously, she allowed her staff a wide range of independence, but insisted on an ethic that prioritized the donor and the mission. “People support a cause because they understand the vision and want to be part of it,” she said. For Mary Jane, fundraising was all about serving the people who invest in Denison. And, as Myers reflected, “Her commitment to Denison was unsurpassed … she took pride in the College, and she worked with fierce dedication to make it better.”
Mary Jane’s talents were not reserved solely for her alma mater. She was also a tireless volunteer in the Licking County community, serving where she could exercise her knack for bringing people to consensus. She was a longtime member of the boards of Licking Memorial Health Systems, Licking County Port Authority, the Hospice Foundation, and the Lindorf Family Foundation. She was especially committed to the board of A Call to College, a college-access nonprofit in Newark, Ohio, which was co-founded by her lifelong friend, the late Jane Cooke McConnell ’56. And even as she became gravely ill, she willingly consulted with Call to College board member Sarah Wallace, who sought Mary Jane’s wisdom in establishing the Boys and Girls Club of Newark. “Mary Jane came from a family that didn’t have tremendous financial resources,” Wallace said, “so she understood what the challenges are for some children. She was tireless in wanting to reduce the hurdles these kids face.”
So much more could be said about Mary Jane—about her achievements, her impact, and her awards, including the Denison Alumni Citation. But Mary Jane always stepped aside when the credits rolled, so it’s a sure bet she wouldn’t relish more praise. Perhaps she would be happiest to know that so many friends, from Denison and well beyond, echo Wallace’s heartfelt tribute: “She taught me so much … I miss her every day.”
Mary Jane was preceded in death by her sister, Nancy Jagger Kalin. She is survived by her children and their spouses, Steve McDonald and Jane Rindsberg; Anne and John Peterson; and Nancy and Bret Butters; by five grandchildren, including Haley Butters ’16; and by a great-grandson. She is also survived by her former husband, John Cooper McDonald ’58.