Duncan MacDonald, a quiet powerhouse of a woman who lived a vibrant, varied life, died on July 18, 2020, at the Henrietta Brewer House in Vineyard Haven, at the age of 104. She was fond of saying, “Communication on a one-to-one basis is one of the things that’s truly lacking in our society.” Throughout her long life and pioneering journalism career, Duncan MacDonald was dedicated to reversing that trend.
She was born Dorothy MacDonald in Beaumont, Texas, on Nov. 4, 1915, to Martha Schalies Hammond and William MacDonald. At age 6 she asserted her characteristic resolve when, upon learning that another girl in town shared the same name, she declared her name thereafter would be Duncan.
By nature, she was always interested in people, and in finding ways to tell their stories. She brought a natural curiosity and love of in-depth research to a career with the New York Times radio station WQXR, conducting live studio interviews. She worked with drama critic and magazine editor George Jean Nathan, and interviewed a wide assortment of people, from members of the theater community and politicians to those working in public service. Her aim was always to shed light on the seldom-heard stories, as she recounted in an interview with M.V. Museum oral historian Linsey Lee, “to touch on the things that are often overlooked.”
Growing up in the Depression, there was no money to attend college. “And so I went to work. I have not been without a paycheck for almost 90 years, which is very useful.” She made her way to New York City at the age of 19, participating in the early days of television. “When Dumont Channel 5 — one of the first television networks — became a reality, I became the manager of women’s and religious programs. And being a woman in this brand-new industry gave me an edge, really, over a lot of other people.
“I directed the first soap opera, ‘A Woman to Remember.’ And the first shopping program. I produced a morning breakfast show on religious topics for Norman Vincent Peale. There were other projects on other subjects. And of course all these things, each one opens up another channel.”
She served as executive director and founding trustee of the National Friends of Public Broadcasting, and as New York president of American Women in Radio and TV. Duncan was recognized for her work on behalf of the National Council of Women, and received a UNICEF award for her work with the Organization of American States.
Always interested in expanding her communications skills, writing too became one of Duncan’s pursuits in both New York and Boston, contributing columns to House Beautiful, Old Farmer’s Almanac, and Yankee magazine.
A collection of her recordings and writings is housed at the 20th Century Archives of American Journalism at the University of Wyoming. Many Vineyard names can be found in the collection, such as Dr. Leona Baumgartner, Garson Kanin, Truda Lash, Mia Farrow, and Robert Crichton, as well as notables like Jackie Robinson, Buckminster Fuller, and Whitney Young.
She was introduced to Martha’s Vineyard by New York friends, including the artist Rose Treat, early childhood expert Helen Maley, and poet Peggy Freydberg. She was amazed by the beauty of the Vineyard, and established roots, purchasing the Attaquin house and living in Gay Head, where she served on the town finance committee. She also joined the board of the Vineyard Conservation Society, Sail Martha’s Vineyard, the Nathan Mayhew Seminars, the M.V. Literacy Group, and other local organizations. When her work took her to the courthouse in Edgartown to manage the County Commissioners’ office, she relocated to Vineyard Haven, where she also worked as feature editor at The Martha’s Vineyard Times. At that time, never one to let moss grow under her feet, Duncan researched and wrote “The Martha’s Vineyard National Bank: An Early History.”
Her late-in-life introduction to her Scottish heritage led to interest in all things Scottish. It soon developed into a passion. It began with volunteer work in New York with the American Scottish Foundation. When she attended the Scottish Games organized by the Caledonian Foundation in North Carolina — singing dancing, traditional games — she was enthralled. She eventually served as vice-president of the foundation, helping to establish Tartan Day as a national day of observance in the U.S. to spread the word about Scottish contributions and achievements. Her hope was that it would inspire others to honor their heritage. She was given the distinction as “Scotland’s First Lady in America” for her lobbying efforts, including congressional recognition of Tartan Day in the U.S. She also served as an officer of Scottish Heritage USA, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and a life member of the Clan Donald Society USA.
While working for the County Commissioners in Edgartown, Duncan helped found the Scottish Society of Martha’s Vineyard, together with her friends Don MacRae and Cape Cod Times reporter Harvey Ewing. At a recent Robert Burns Night, the society recognized Duncan for her contributions as a founding member.
Duncan said, “The Scottish Society has engendered so many friendships. It’s not so much what a person does; it’s knowing that if you needed them, they’re there. That concept of helping out is very heartwarming. It’s also a nice commentary on the Vineyard — that people care about each other, and want to be helpful. These little personal relationships that just are not possible in most other places are one of the things that makes the Vineyard so pleasant.”
Duncan is survived by her niece Nicole Vidor of Hudson, N.Y., nephew Skidmore Smith of San Miguel de Allende, and by her many close friends and admirers on Martha’s Vineyard. She was predeceased by her parents and her sister, Claire Frances MacDonald Smith.
Donations may be made in Duncan’s honor to Martha’s Vineyard Hospice, at hospiceofmv.org or P.O. Box 748, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, and to the First Baptist Church, P.O. Box 806, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.