Bethel schools won't be the same without 'Mac'

Tacoma News TribuneMarch 24, 2014 

Everybody at Bethel Middle School was looking forward to seeing Robert “Mike” MacDonald Monday afternoon.

They assumed the retired teacher and coach would come breezing into their classrooms with a tall tale or a joke, the way he’d always done.

The guy everybody called “Mac,” the man widely regarded as the original Bethel Bulldog, was due at the school to launch the start of a new track season.

But MacDonald, 72, died Saturday evening in a car accident near Eatonville.

He started teaching in the Bethel School District in 1965, and he never left. He taught at Bethel Junior High (now Bethel Middle School) and at Bethel High School. He taught social studies and language arts, served as yearbook and newspaper adviser, and coached several sports.

Even after his formal retirement in 1998, he continued as a teacher, track meet manager for middle and high school competitions, and trusted guide for young teachers finding their way.

“When I got here, I was 21 and he was 37,” remembered Ruth Pitingoro, a Bethel Middle School teacher who knew MacDonald for 37 years. “I thought he was an old man. But he took us young kids under his wing. He mentored us. He trained teachers in leadership.”

MacDonald started traditions, including spirit days, that endure at Bethel Middle School. He instigated skating parties for students, and organized an annual Christmas shopping trip to the mall for students who earned the privilege with good grades.

“He had such confidence in those kids,” said Mike Sniezak, a teacher and coach who chaperoned some of those shopping trips with MacDonald. “It was fun to be around him being around kids.”

Phillip Villanueva, who graduated from Bethel High in 2007, remembers MacDonald as a track coach who emphasized working hard at something you love.

“He taught me to work hard, have fun and enjoy what I was doing,” said Villanueva, who placed at state competitions as a Bethel senior and went on to run track and earn a bachelor’s degree at Western Washington University. “I owe a lot of my success to him.”

Becky Latham taught with MacDonald for 16 years at Bethel Junior High before moving to Spanaway Lake High School. She said her most vivid memory of MacDonald is the moments he would burst into her room with a smile on his face and a Diet Coke in hand, saying “I have an idea.”

“I knew that it would be fun,” she said. “It didn’t matter what it was. He was about kids having experiences at school.”

Colleagues said MacDonald taught them that teaching meant more than just talking at kids.

He made learning fun. He wanted the school to offer a wide range of activities, from photography to football.

“He said there was a need for kids to make Bethel their own,” said Sniezak, who now teaches in MacDonald’s old classroom. “He loved Bethel Junior High. He wanted everybody who walked through the front door to love it as much as he did.”

Friends said there will be a service for MacDonald at 2 p.m. Saturday at Spanaway Lutheran Church.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@thenewstribune.com @DebbieCafazzo

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