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Sam McDonald: Beloved Stanford Friend, Role Model, and Benefactor

Presenter: Katherine Wright, Interpretive Specialist, San Mateo County Parks

The legendary Emanuel B. “Sam” McDonald (1884–1957), a grandson of formerly enslaved persons, joined the Stanford Farm in 1903 as a teamster hauling gravel. Through hard work and abundant leadership and interpersonal skills, he was hired in 1908 as custodian—later superintendent—of the university’s athletic buildings and grounds. During 46 years at the helm, he gained special recognition for his skill building running tracks. Sam befriended countless athletes and other students during his long career, financially helping many who were working their way through Stanford.

Probably no other Stanford man had as many friends, a Stanford Daily writer opined in 1943. Presiding at the 1941 dedication of “Sam McDonald Road” (from El Camino Real past the Stadium to Angell Field and the tennis courts), President Ray Lyman Wilbur said, “If I ever had to run against Sam McDonald for the presidency of the University, I’d be mighty afraid of the result.”

Starting in 1920, Sam also devoted himself to the newly established Stanford Home for Convalescent Children. He visited the children frequently and always headed up the work crew and ran the barbecue at Con Home Day (later renamed Sam McDonald Day), the annual clean-up by the student body that capped a week of fundraising activities. He staged campus barbecues for other groups and hosted large gatherings of friends at his cottage in the woods near La Honda, where he had acquired part of the land that now makes up San Mateo County’s Sam McDonald Park.

In this presentation, Katherine Wright shares a virtual slide show about Stanford’s Sam McDonald and the park that bears his name. Wright grew up in the city of San Mateo and attended U.C. Davis, majoring in wildlife conservation and biology.

Historical resources on Emanuel B. “Sam” McDonald