Sandy McDonnell: Family Man, Character-Education Pioneer

Friends of the former McDonnell Douglas chief executive spoke last week about what his life means to them. McDonnell, who lived in Clayton, died March 19.

Former resident Sandy McDonnell took his experiences developing core ethical values at aircraft company McDonnell Douglas Corp. and used them to transform schools in the St. Louis area. But above everything, he treasured his family.

McDonnell died of pancreatic cancer March 19 at the age of 89. He served as chief executive at McDonnell Douglas, later retired and founded several organizations including CHARACTERplus, a St. Louis group dedicated to improving the ethical culture at schools.

"He was just such a nice man," said Liz Gibbons, who serves as director of the organization. She worked with McDonnell for nine years and said he treated everyone with the same level of respect, whether the person worked as a janitor or as a chief executive.

Gibbons recalls McDonnell delivering speeches without the aid of notes, including at a Feb. 27 event. He was always quoting people such as Theodore Roosevelt.

He worked every day until his cancer diagnosis, Gibbons said. Even after that, he routinely worked from home.

On March 19, she noticed an email from McDonnell had arrived in her inbox. She immediately clicked on it, only to read words he had prepared for a handful of people to notify them of his death.

It stated in part: “So when you are sad and sick at heart, go to our friends and relatives and do good things.”

She last met with McDonnell on March 8. During their conversation, he suggested contacting a four-star Air Force general to speak at an upcoming meeting for superintendents. The official had written an article about leadership. He asked Gibbons to craft a letter bearing his signature, which she did.

The general received the letter one day after McDonnell's death. He will speak to the superintendents later this year.

A mission to emphasize ethics in education

In 1971, Sandy McDonnell was elected president of McDonnell Douglas, now Boeing. He was elected chief executive officer the next year. The cornerstone of his tenure became the company's core ethical values, developed by a group of top executives he put together. The document states that employees must be, among other things:

  • "Honest and trustworthy in all our relationships"
  • "Cooperative and constructive in all work undertaken"
  • "Law abiding in all our activities"
  • "Economical in using company resources"

During that time, Gibbons said, he kept thinking about the need to implement such values in schools so that newly hired employees would "not only be smart but good." He was determined to focus on the issue when he retired.

He did. He started by looking for programs that could be purchased for schools. In 1988, he asked seven St. Louis-area superintendents whether their districts would implement the programming if he purchased it for them.

They agreed schools had gotten away from character training and ethical development, Gibbons said, and they wanted to do something about it. But the superintendents didn't just want a canned curriculum that teachers would only use for five-minute daily lessons.

So McDonnell founded CHARACTERplus. It began with the seven districts and has grown to include 77 school districts along with 17 schools. The organization offers workshops, national speakers and networking for school districts. McDonnell also started Character Education Partnership, an organization based in Washington, D.C.

The Lindbergh School District is among the most active users of the program, Gibbons said. It has been ranked as the highest-performing school district in Missouri for the past two years.

CHARACTERplus has had the opportunity to study outcomes of character education with the help of federal grants, and the results have been positive, Gibbons said.

"When you improve school culture and climate, which is what character education is really all about, academics go up to," she said.

(Stay in touch with other Clayton residents on our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ClaytonRichmondHeightsPatch)

30-year assistant fondly recalls a family man

Connie Richards started work at McDonnell Douglas in 1975 and began working full-time as Sandy McDonnell's executive assistant in 1981.

"First and foremost, he was a wonderful husband, a devoted father," Richards said. She recalls how he sang love songs to his wife, Priscilla. The two were married 65 years in September. "His one and only grandchild (Mac MacVittie) … that boy meant the world to Sandy. To think that Mac excelled in school and ended up with an appointment to the Air Force Academy."

Mac went on to fly a C-17 Globemaster III transport jet, which is made by Boeing.

"I remember a day when they took a tour here of the C-17 facility, and his grandson, Mac, went over and talked with some of the workers," Richards said. "And that was just a very proud moment for Sandy to be able to do that with his grandson."

McDonnell got out into the aircraft plant as often as he could to touch base with people. His teammates were always happy to see him.

"That continued up into his retirement," Richards said. "He's maintained an office here since he retired in 1988. And when people would see him in the cafeteria or whatever, they would always come talk to him, and he always obliged that."

She also knows how his work changed character education in St. Louis and beyond.

"He worked tirelessly for that," Richards said. "When he was committed to doing something, he did it all out."

A professor's lasting impression

Dr. Marvin Berkowitz is the Sanford N. McDonnell professor of character education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL).

McDonnell created the position "to house and lead training for school leaders in character education" and to provide an on-site character expert to CHARACTERplus, Berkowitz said.

The former McDonnell Douglas executive recruited Berkowitz to the position. They first met because of their mutual work in character education.

Berkowitz resisted at first; he was firmly established at Marquette University and knew nothing about St. Louis.

But McDonnell was persistent. He didn't back off. Berkowitz arrived in St. Louis for an interview, though he made it clear that he likely wouldn't take the job. 

Then Berkowitz realized he had been a fool, he said. McDonnell had created a great position and opportunity. Berkowitz was named to the post in 1998.

Since that time, Berkowitz has continued work on UMSL's Leadership Academy in Character Education, an intensive yearlong professional development program for school administrators. About 20 groups of officials have been through the training so far.

McDonnell came for the big graduation ceremony each year. Berkowitz, a self-proclaimed hugger, says he turned McDonnell into one, too.

The administrators on the receiving end were sometimes off-put: After all, their fathers had worked for this iconic 6-foot-4 man.

Not so for McDonnell.

"Sandy was totally nonplussed by the whole thing," Berkowitz said. "He loved it."

He was born to relative privilege and attended Princeton University, Berkowitz said.

But McDonnell's life would have been enviable to most people for reasons far beyond that. McDonnell and his wife remained "steadfastly in love," Berkowitz said. Character was a self-project to him. He continued to inspire his colleagues years after they had worked with him.

"He really was raised with very strong positive values and always wanted to do the right thing," Berkowitz said. "And you just don't see enough of that. You don't see enough of that in the world, and it was really authentic."

Awards, memorials and a life remembered

Last year, McDonnell became one of five people to receive the Pioneer in Education Award from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article about his death. The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Business Journal are among other outlets to have also written profiles of his life.

Gibbons, who worked with Sandy at CHARACTERplus, will remember him as an amazing person she knew first-hand.

"I guess I just forget that he's bigger than life," she said.

What legacy does Sandy McDonnell leave for Clayton and the greater St. Louis community? Tell us by posting a comment to this article.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something