The Stanford community hardly kept its esteem for Sam McDonald a secret during the beloved administrator’s lifetime. A Daily journalist claimed that McDonald had more friends on campus than any other person. Even Ray Lyman Wilbur, Class of 1896, MA ’97, MD ’99—Stanford’s longest-serving president and not one for flip remarks—once claimed he’d be mighty afraid to face McDonald in a vote for the university presidency. Yet, when McDonald died, in November 1957, the admiration crescendoed.
The Daily announced the news with a page-spanning headline befitting a major world event, the Board of Trustees reportedly adjourned its November meeting in his honor, and the Band took the field at Big Game to spell out “S-A-M,” a gesture repeated by the card-stunt performers in the crowd. “This was his University,” the Daily declared. “This was his Farm. Let us hold his memory high.”
The outpouring was rooted in more than McDonald’s job as superintendent of athletic buildings and grounds and his reputation as an expert on constructing and maintaining tracks. McDonald was a Stanford institution who had been part of campus for more than 50 years—long enough to greet Jane Stanford herself, work under five university presidents, and become integral to Farm life and lore. He was friend, correspondent, and occasional Cupid to generations of Stanford students; host and chef of countless campus barbecues; and committed benefactor of the Stanford Home for Convalescent Children, a precursor to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, where he often read to patients, gardened, led holiday festivities, and played songs on his concertina. All royalties from his 1954 memoir, Sam McDonald’s Farm, and a third of his estate would go to the home. The rest would go to the university proper.
Time, though, is a great eraser. Sixty-six years after McDonald’s passing, the road named for him in 1941, now called Sam McDonald Mall, still runs along the southern flank of the track. But the identity of its namesake faded faster than perhaps it should have. McDonald didn’t just do all the things described above; he did so as the first Black man to hold an administrative post at Stanford, maybe even at any American university outside of historically Black institutions. He is one of the great characters of Stanford history. Yet even as the first true cohort of Black students—seven of them—arrived on campus five years after his death, his fame had already waned.
Roger Clay, ’66, one of Stanford’s first Black football players and later a university trustee, says that as a student he knew McDonald’s name from the street signs, but it was only in the past four years that he learned any details of his life, including that McDonald was Black. As a young man adjusting to life as part of a tiny minority on a campus where, Clay recalls, “even the ditch diggers were white,” he used to peruse old yearbooks, searching for Black faces. Knowing about McDonald would have offered a connection that he had found absent, he says. “I assumed there was no Black history before me.” Memories always fade, especially in a group as transitory as a student body. But Clay guesses that on a campus with few Black students, and no Black faculty members, perhaps there were fewer inclined to keep the memory alive. “There was no one to know him,” he says.
McDonald’s great-niece Leana Brunson McClain can fill in the blanks to McDonald’s legacy as succinctly as anyone. Her great-uncle, she says, started at Stanford as a laborer hauling gravel and left it as a friend to professors, politicians, and school presidents. He came to campus to build roads and departed with one named after him. And he did it all despite the liabilities and limits imposed on a Black man in segregation–era America. “He was a Black man in a time that being a Black man was very hard,” McClain says. “But he was so motivated, so sure of himself, that what he was able to accomplish I think is phenomenal.”
Emanuel Bruce McDonald—Sam was a nickname yet to be bestowed—would hardly have seemed primed for a long stay when he walked the 18 miles from downtown San Jose to the town of Mayfield on the cusp of campus in 1901. For one, he was a Scripture-quoting teenage teetotaler in a town teeming with saloons and street fights. (After sleeping the night under a pepper tree, he witnessed two brawls on his first morning in town.) But more so because McDonald’s life to that point had been one of constant relocation.
‘He was a Black man in a time that being a Black man was very hard. But he was so motivated, so sure of himself, that what he was able to accomplish I think is phenomenal.’
He was born January 1, 1884, in Monroe, La., to a mother born into enslavement on the eve of the Civil War and a Methodist preacher whose own father had been enslaved until freed by his owner. His memoirs leave unsaid why the family left for California in 1890, but McClain says they were fleeing racial oppression. Certainly, Monroe had no shortage of that. Of the five Southern counties with the most lynchings from 1877 to 1950, three are in Northern Louisiana, including Ouachita Parish, where Monroe sits. “It was a really bad place to be a Black family,” says history professor James Campbell, MA ’83, PhD ’89, who specializes in African American history. And, Campbell adds, it was the leaders and the educated—like a minister—who were often the targets of such terrors.
McClain says McDonald, three brothers, and their parents journeyed to Southern California via wagon—a long, grueling affair. At first, they settled in Tustin, in Orange County, then in nearby Santa Ana. In 1893, they moved to Chino, where Sam’s father, Peter Bird McDonald, made a go of beet farming. It was a hard life. McDonald’s mother, Priscilla Wheatley, who McClain says fell ill coming west, soon died, and the over-farmed soil failed. The McDonalds returned to their wagon, this time for a three-week journey to Gilroy, where the soil again proved disastrous. Sam McDonald’s lifelong embrace of hard work was rooted in harsh necessity. In Gilroy, where McDonald describes his family as the only Black one, he volunteered for his father’s employer, a dairy-farming family called the Gubsers. McDonald learned to milk a string of 21 cows and make himself helpful in the kitchen even as the men of the house disdained domestic duties. “I was an unsolicited volunteer about the place, primarily in order to partake in Mrs. Gubser’s fine cooking,” McDonald writes in his memoir. Beneath that trademark positivity, there’s hunger.
After three years in Gilroy, the family’s struggles prompted the senior McDonald to lead his two youngest boys on another move, this time toward the promise of ample land in Washington state. They got as far as Pilot Rock, in northern Oregon, before the 16-year-old McDonald absconded. He felt “grievously homesick” for California, he later explained. And without a goodbye, he slipped away, taking his bicycle off the wagon to trade for a saddle pony he used to start the journey south, his progress slowed by the need to work and trade and, often, to shoot his night’s dinner. At the state line, he paused for prayer. “The very thought that I was about to touch the soil and breathe the air of the Paradise that I had resolved never again to desert created within me a spirit of great joy,” he wrote.
Seven months after leaving his father and brother, he arrived in Sacramento and then San Francisco, where he was turned away by the Marines for being Black and by the Navy for being too young. After working briefly as an artists’ model—he’d been approached on the street—he fled in horror at being asked to pose nude. He ended up as a chore boy on a Sacramento Delta riverboat, where his boxing skills and tall, athletic frame earned him an extra role—and the promise of more pay—as a bouncer responsible for keeping idlers away from the galley. When the extra pay failed to appear, McDonald vowed to drop this dangerous duty, prompting immediate capitulation from his boss. Even at 17, McDonald was alert to his worth.
‘He wasn’t in any hurry to serve his meals. He said, “When something good’s about to happen, let them crave.”’
He left the boat after six months, intending to return to Gilroy to farm, when a stranger in San Jose told him of jobs on Leland Stanford’s stock farm. Together they made the trek toward Palo Alto, McDonald carrying little more than two blankets and a change of clothes. The stock farm wasn’t hiring, but others were, including a farmer and tavern owner named Fred Behm, a Swedish immigrant whose difficulties pronouncing Emanuel would lead to McDonald’s lasting nickname within his new community: Sam. (His family never used the name, McClain says. They called him Uncle Man, short for Emanuel.)
In 1903, at age 19, McDonald came to work at the university as a teamster hauling gravel to build campus roads, including Palm Drive. But he nursed grander ambitions. Though his formal childhood education ended in seventh grade, McDonald was a relentless self-improver, taking correspondence courses in law, meteorology, criminal investigations, and more. He had dreams of becoming a lawyer and hired a Stanford student at $1 a session to tutor him. He would soon take a position as deputy marshal in the town of Mayfield (now part of Palo Alto), where he fostered a reputation as someone to go to for legal and political advice. A blacksmith, McDonald recalled, was the only other Black person in town.
In 1904, looking for a job more aligned with his law enforcement interests—he was hoping to work for the U.S. Department of Justice—McDonald signed on as one of two university night watchmen. On April 18, 1906, he had planned to rise early to take a train to San Jose for a day of sightseeing on bicycles with his boss, a semiregular ritual that usually began with a predawn coffee at the campus power station. But exhausted by his double-duty working and studying, McDonald slept in, only to be catapulted to the floor in the morning darkness. He rushed outside to see the 1906 earthquake rollicking campus. “The commotion is indescribable,” he wrote. “The scrubs are tormented as if being twisted out of the earth. The very tops of the tall eucalyptus trees and others, without exaggerating, appear to meet the ground.”
After the terra had returned to firma, he set out to check on Encina and Roble halls, and then the powerhouse, whose signature smokestack—“like the Hoover Tower of today”—had collapsed. Near the spot where he would have been making coffee, McDonald helped pull bricks off the body of 22-year-old facilities manager Otto Gerdes, one of two fatalities on campus that day. Had he gone through with his original plans, McDonald guessed he would have been a third.
The acute need for labor to rebuild the university brought McDonald back into campus construction, where he oversaw student crews cleaning brick from destroyed buildings for reuse. In 1908, the grad student in charge of student body business affairs approached him to become athletic caretaker. McDonald demurred, not least at the thought of working under students, who then controlled athletics and who had a reputation for disorder and rebellion. But the student was persistent, and McDonald tells a tale of being lifted off his feet by his relentlessness. In truth, there was only so far McDonald could be moved. The offer was for $45 a month, $15 less than McDonald was already making. As on the riverboat, McDonald knew his value. The student said he’d have to check. McDonald got his $60.
And so began his tenure as athletics groundskeeper, a one-man job that grew into a superintendent position leading a crew of 17. His early duties sound, in most respects, as might be expected—inflating balls, striping fields, and running operations for games, in addition to deterring theft. Other jobs might be harder for the modern mind to guess. In 1912, to keep the stadium turf short, the university acquired six sheep, a flock that would soon expand into the hundreds. McDonald hired a Scottish shepherd to tend the swelling numbers, but it was McDonald who was apparently seen as their guardian. The Daily dubbed them “Sam’s animated lawn mowers.” The sheep paid for themselves in wool alone.
Sheep, of course, have other uses. McDonald developed a reputation as a cook, thanks to small gatherings with students where he often tried to set couples up. In 1914, McDonald played chef to his first athletic barbecue for the track team, a feast for 200 where local lamb was likely on the menu. Almost immediately, McDonald was in such demand as a cook he had trouble keeping dates straight. He once confused two students named Smith and double-booked their events for the same afternoon. One May alone, he cooked for 14 barbecues.
His new role was in keeping with entrenched racial dynamics of the day, says Adrian Miller, ’91, author of Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue. Largely because of the huge amount of labor required—often including digging the pits and slaughtering the animals—by the 1820s “Blackness and barbecue are wedded,” an association lasting well into the modern day. But despite those dubious origins, the expert barbecue chef had a celebrated status, Miller says. “The chief barbecue person is a very honored status in communities Black and white,” he says. “Very few people could do this and do it well. So this is quite an achievement for him.”
Certainly, McDonald leaned into the showmanship. “He wasn’t in any hurry to serve his meals,” Holly Hansen Ceideburg, ’40, the editor of McDonald’s memoirs, once said in recorded comment. “He said, ‘When something good’s about to happen, let them crave.’”
His talent over the flames led to the defining relationship of his Stanford tenure. In 1920, he started barbecuing for “Labor Day,” the culmination of a weeklong event of cleaning up and fundraising for the Stanford Home for Convalescent Children. Con Home, as it was better known, had been founded the year before in the old Stanford Mansion to serve children with polio and other chronic diseases. At first, McDonald was shy around the patients, according to a 1983 article in Sandstone & Tile, the journal of the Stanford Historical Society. But the home’s supervisor would take those children who could walk outside, to watch McDonald light his fire. And she enticed McDonald inside, where he would soon become a fixture as a storyteller, musician, and guest of honor on holidays, including Christmas, when he would roam into the woods to find the children a tree. During World War II, McDonald plowed a five-acre victory garden next to Con Home, where he and a contingent of volunteers grew corn, beets, carrots, squash, and more. “Our bountiful harvest was more than sufficient to meet the needs of the Home, and the surplus was exchanged or sold to a vegetable vendor,” he wrote. In 1954, the year he retired, he led the barbecue, where 2,350 pounds of beef served 5,000. By that time, the fundraiser’s name had been changed to Sam McDonald Day.
Last fall, the Lane Medical Library hosted an online exhibit of McDonald’s life entitled “Sam McDonald: A Stanford Pioneer.” It’s a reflection of McDonald’s importance to Con Home, and in turn to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, which descends from it, says Drew Bourn, the library’s historical curator. It’s also a reflection of the paucity of Black stories from the Medical School’s early history. Stanford’s first known Black med student graduated in 1961, Bourn says, and there were no Black faculty members. Even as a volunteer, McDonald was the highest-profile Black staff member associated with the Medical School’s history through the mid-20th century, he says.
Land and Legacy
McDonald seems to have been imbued with an entrepreneurial instinct. Even as he sojourned down from Oregon as a teenager, he managed to turn a profit on two horses he acquired along the way. As a farmhand new to Palo Alto, he raised his own hogs and poultry. Infections soured the investment but did little to dampen his instinct to work for himself. For most of his time at Stanford, McDonald lived in an apartment in the attic of the Track House—the present-day Visitor Center—but he always maintained an office in Mayfield. There, he managed his own business interests, including property at California Avenue and El Camino Real, where he ran a billiards hall with an adjoining barbershop. During World War I, he was granted permission to grow his own crops on campus, thus becoming a “hay king” with nearly 1,000 acres under his control. His 40-cow herd supplied dining halls with milk.
Not all those investments would flourish in the long term—collapsing hay prices, for example, would later cost him dearly—but during the latter part of World War I, McDonald apparently had a better-balanced ledger than the university, which had seen enrollment plummet and athletic revenues evaporate as a result of the conflict. McDonald made his own funds available to meet payroll and to help buy things, such as a truck the athletic department couldn’t afford. “[T]o this day, I am not at all sure that we have repaid him in full for all the expenses he incurred for us,” a former secretary-treasurer of the Board of Athletic Control wrote in a letter that McDonald included in his book.
In 1919, McDonald began acquiring the investment that today forms his most visible public legacy—400 acres of land near La Honda in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which he turned into a retreat called Chee-Chee-Wa-Wa. He hosted many barbecues there, including one for both the Stanford and Cal football coaching staffs. Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, an ichthyologist by training, once held forth on the retreat’s fish. And it was where McDonald’s own extended family, the descendants of his older sister, came to stay with him during the summers. McClain recalls her cousins—full from eating steak and homemade ice cream—crowding the floor of the screened-in porch as they fell asleep to the sound of a running creek.
It’s also where McDonald nurtured a deep sense of spiritual communion with God and nature. One weekend, Ceideburg, McDonald’s editor, got an invitation to join McDonald for Sunday services. She and her husband, John, arrived in their Sunday best, expecting to go to church. Instead, McDonald led them up to the ridge of his property to a circle of 12 towering redwoods he had named after the Apostles of Jesus. There McDonald read a passage from the Bible, sang out several verses of a hymn, and gave a long benediction before they all returned, she recalled, to a “lumberjack’s breakfast.” As befits a holy place, McDonald made the land a sanctuary from hunting where, according to his memoir, not even a wood rat would be harmed.
“He was such a naturalist and an environmentalist before it was the thing to be,” McClain says. “As a child, I just saw him as a giant, like the redwoods.”
The land also stands as further example of McDonald’s role as a racial pioneer. McDonald’s memoir does not delve deeply into his experiences with racism, though it reveals itself in passing anecdotes. He recalled that in multiple western towns, children touched his skin, expecting their hands to come away stained. There was an undercurrent at Stanford too. A Daily columnist in 1952 quotes a pro-segregation student saying, “I wouldn’t give a cent to the Con Home Drive”—aka Sam McDonald Day—“because it’s an inter-racial affair.” Even the much greater volume of reverence for McDonald could seem wincingly condescending. A 1952 book on Stanford sports extolled him as a “Lincolnesque Negro.”
In La Honda, though, McDonald was in proximity to racial prejudice with the force of law. Two miles away from his land, the community of Cuesta La Honda had a covenant prohibiting inhabitants “not wholly of the white Caucasian Race” in place from 1941 until California outlawed such restrictions in 1948. (The community finally removed the language legally in 2007.) McDonald thrived despite such neighbors. He was not only a major landowner in the area but also ran a water company with dozens of customers who relied on him for service.
‘He was such a naturalist and an environmentalist before it was the thing to be. As a child, I just saw him as a giant, like the redwoods.’
At his death, McDonald—a bachelor—bequeathed his estate, including those 400 acres in the redwoods, to Stanford and to the Con Home. The land was then sold to San Mateo County to keep as a sanctuary. Today, it forms the heart of Sam McDonald Park, an 850-acre preserve on Pescadero Creek Road, a winding 17 miles from campus. “Most people have never heard of Sam McDonald but leave a hike or talk wishing they could have met him,” says Katherine Wright, a San Mateo County park ranger who has done research into his life, including on the racially restrictive covenants nearby. In 2021, she gave a presentation on McDonald on behalf of the Stanford Historical Society.
McClain, an education lecturer who specialized in children’s literature, would like his legacy to find other audiences. She often told her uncle’s story to her students at Indiana University, and she would love to see his life as a children’s book, an inspiring tale of finding your way against the odds. She knows younger audiences may pause on aspects of his story. From one angle, his love of cooking and of entertaining Stanford’s mostly white student body might look less like service and more like servitude.
“Young people might see that as servitude, but I don’t see it as servitude,” McClain says. “I see it as a Black man in the ’20s and ’30s finding his way and finding a niche.
“He worked his way up and became friends with, you know, the president of the University and other people. It was not on equal footing because that just didn’t happen in those days, but they accepted him for who he was and not as a servant but as a part of the Stanford family.”
He was a man making his own path in a world that gave little to those in his position. At Stanford, McClain says, he found his place. “He didn’t let the barriers that were in front of most African Americans at that time stop him from doing what he wanted to do,” she says. “They never stopped Uncle Man from doing what he wanted.”
Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at email@example.com.