Kenneth MacDonald Obituary

Kenneth  MacDonald
Kenneth MacDonald

September 3, 1905 - August 26, 2004
Born in Jefferson, IA
Resided in West Des Moines, IA


Kenneth MacDonald, an editor and publisher who helped guide The Des Moines Register through half of the past century, died Thursday while recovering from a stroke at Kavanaugh House in West Des Moines. He was one week shy of his 99th birthday.

MacDonald was with the Register for 50 years, including 40 years as a top news executive, retiring in 1977. They were years of enormous change and upheaval in society as well as in the news industry.

During his career, Iowa and the nation witnessed the Depression and unprecedented prosperity, World War II and the Cold War, the rise of the nuclear age, the space age, and the age of discontent and mistrust. It saw civil rights and assassinations, Vietnam and rock 'n' roll, illicit drugs, Watergate, and the Reagan revolution.

Electronics revolutionized the way news is gathered and delivered, as television rose and computers were introduced to newsrooms.

Through it all, MacDonald quietly led the Register and its sister paper, the afternoon Des Moines Tribune (which ceased publishing in 1982), neither shrinking from new ideas nor leaping headlong into them simply because they were momentarily popular.

Under MacDonald, 12 staff members won Pulitzer prizes, the top award in journalism, and at one point in the 1970s, only one paper, the New York Times, owned more Pulitzers for national reporting than did the Register.

MacDonald is survived by a son, Stephen, of High Falls, N.Y. His wife, Helen, died in 2001. The burial, which had not been scheduled as of Thursday, will be private.

David Kruidenier, another former Des Moines Register publisher who lived across the street from MacDonald, called the man he succeeded in 1970 "a mentor for me and for a lot of other people."

MacDonald, "more than any other single individual, was responsible for the growing recognition and prestige of the Register to a point where it was considered one of the best papers in the U.S.," Kruidenier said.

"He was an excellent editor, and he was able to attract and create an environment where good reporting flourished," Kruideneir said. "To me, it was kind of the golden age of newspapers in a way. . . Ken was one of the giants in the business."

Former Register editor Michael Gartner, the current owner of the Iowa Cubs and chairman of the Vision Iowa state grant board, called MacDonald "a man of unquestioned integrity" who "inoculated everybody around him with the same integrity."

"It was a good newspaper before he grabbed the reins, but it became a great newspaper under him, in my view," said Gartner, who succeeded MacDonald as editor. "I just don't think anybody ever said a bad word about him. And yet, he didn't roll over for anybody in the community, I'll tell you that."

MacDonald insisted on "seeking significant news no matter whom it may displease. Often the better the local reporting, the more criticism it will attract; significant news is controversial," he was quoted as saying.

"You don't have any business being in this field unless you expect to be in trouble about half the time," he said. "An editor had better be prepared to lose most of his friends temporarily, because sooner or later you're going to irritate or aggravate anybody you know."

MacDonald was born Sept. 3, 1905, and raised in Jefferson, where his father was a farmer-banker. While at the University of Iowa, he found himself involved in the student newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and he became friends with Frank Eyerly, who later would be MacDonald's managing editor for nearly a quarter-century; and Richard Wilson, who was to become the Register's first full-time reporter in Washington, D.C., and one of the paper's Pulitzer winners.

The three ended up at the Register and Tribune in the late 1920s. For about three years, 1930 to 1933, MacDonald was the Register's news editor, Eyerly the telegraph editor and Wilson the city editor.

Under MacDonald and his colleague Wilson in Washington, the Register became the country's premier daily newspaper on agricultural matters.

Also under MacDonald, former editorial page editor Lauren Soth published his letter inviting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to visit Iowa to learn about growing corn and raising livestock. Soth's letter, followed by other editorials that stressed international understanding, eventually led Khrushchev to accept the invitation. In 1959 he visited Iowa and the United States, seen over time as an early step in improving U.S.-Soviet relations.

Soth won a Pulitzer Prize.

MacDonald in 1953 became the third editor of the Register and Tribune after serving as news editor, managing editor and executive editor.

During World War II he was a Navy lieutenant, doing combat intelligence work in the Pacific Theater.

He became the Register and Tribune's chief operating officer and publisher in 1960. He turned over those duties in 1970 to Kruidenier.

MacDonald was a tall, slim man of graceful manner, patrician bearing and impeccable dress. A year before retiring, he relinquished the post of editor to Gartner, who described MacDonald as "movie-star handsome . . . a great, dignified gentleman."

MacDonald held a variety of civic positions - among them, president of the Greater Des Moines Committee, vice president of the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the board of trustees of Simpson College, and a director of Iowa Lutheran Hospital.