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It was 1968, and America was roiling. Across the country, citizens found their lives convulsed by the changes unfolding around them.

Among them was James Cornell McDonald, who set out that summer on a pilgrimage to Africa, studying and teaching at the University of Ghana. "There he saw black people in charge of things," said his son, Mitchell McDonald of St. Paul. "It helped him gain a better sense of himself. He went there in a Brooks Brothers suit and came back in a dashiki."

McDonald changed his name to Kwame, Ghanian for "born on Saturday," and resumed his work in his own country, fueled by what a multitude of others describe as a fervent love of his fellow man.

He died of cancer Wednesday in St. Paul. He was 80.

About 2 1/2 weeks before his death, 300 people, including University of Minnesota men's basketball coach Tubby Smith and Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, gathered at St. Paul Central High School to honor McDonald's long career as a teacher, administrator, mentor, coach, sportswriter, broadcaster and activist, said Charles Hallman, who wrote about it for the Minneapolis Spokesman-Recorder.

"Kwame was an icon," Hallman said last week. "He's left us much better off."

McDonald was born and raised in Madison, Wis. He studied political science at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, where he met Mary Palmer, the teacher he married in 1956. From 1957 to 1959, he worked for the Urban League in Milwaukee.

In 1961, he came to Minnesota to run the state's Commission Against Discrimination, working with Gov. Elmer L. Andersen and Attorney General Walter Mondale. Among his efforts was integrating the Minnesota Twins spring training facility in Florida.

In the years that followed, he held jobs at colleges in North Carolina, New York and Washington, D.C. In 1977, Minnesota civil rights activist Katie McWatt persuaded him to move back to St. Paul.

Back in Minnesota (he would leave again twice, briefly, for jobs in North Carolina and Washington state), he undertook a number of roles. Among them: work on the Summit-University Crime Prevention Council; writing for the Twin Cities Courier, Insight News and the Spokesman-Recorder, including pioneering pieces on women's sports; host of a cable TV show; service on Gov. Arne Carlson's Council on Youth; director of St. Paul's Inner City Youth League, and teaching at Minneapolis and St. Paul schools. His final job, from 2008 to this year, was mentoring students at St. Paul's Johnson High School, where his son is a teacher.

"He was my dad, brother, best friend, all rolled into one," his son said. "Even though he did so much for everyone else, he was always there for me."

Hallman said, "He loved us all, and left us with a challenge -- to be real, to be our best."

In a taped message shown at the Oct. 7 gathering, McDonald advised listeners "to give of self and help other people to give of [themselves]."

Said Toni Carter: "Kwame was a faithful and honorable friend who wisely went out of his way to motivate, counsel, support and recognize others for their work for community and humanity. In addition to all his work and achievements, he was a great encourager. Through the Wise Owl Awards he sponsored annually, he said to many, 'Good work! Your labor of love is not unnoticed. I see you and the things you are doing on behalf of the beloved community. Keep on going!'

"We'll miss our dear friend," Carter continued. "But it's clear from the great outpouring of love at the recognition program ... last month that so many he has inspired will keep his legacy of love alive in our hearts and minds, and especially in our work for children."

His wife of 53 years, Mary, died in 2010. In addition to his son, he is survived by brothers Billy McDonald and Jack Mitchell, both of Madison, and Ralph Mitchell of Greensboro, N.C., and sisters Carolyn Hargrove, Betty Banks and Emma Earl, all of Madison, Arlene Marion of Seguin, Texas, and Evette Mitchell of Colorado. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Nov. 19 at Living Word Church, 640 Prior Av. N., St. Paul.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290