William R. MacDonald, 104, engineer who worked with Thomas A. Edison

May 26, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

William R. MacDonald, a retired engineer who once worked for Thomas Alva Edison, died May 19 of undetermined causes at his home in Lancaster, Pa. He was 104.

The former longtime Hamilton resident, known as "Mac," had lived in Lancaster since 1991. He retired from Drummond Paving Co. in Baltimore in 1965.

After earning his bachelor's degree in civil and mechanical engineering from the College of the City of New York in 1920, he worked as a Wall Street brokerage house runner. In 1920, he responded to a New York newspaper ad for a job at Edison Laboratories in West Orange, N.J.

After arriving there, he took an essay test in American history, chemistry, geography and ancient history and was sent to another building for grading.

"I walked into a large open room, and there was an elderly man sitting at a roll-top desk. He went over every question, every one. And then he folded the paper over and graded it," he told the Lancaster, Pa., Intelligencer Journal in a 1995 interview.

It was Edison, inventor of the light bulb and the phonograph, who had personally marked Mr. MacDonald's test with an "A" and then handed it back to him.

His first job at the massive Edison factory, which once employed 5,000 workers, was analyzing certain operations and then making his recommendations directly to the inventor. He later oversaw the cylinder record plant before promoting the Edison Phonograph in Denver and Kansas City, Mo.

After leaving Edison Industries in 1926, Mr. MacDonald went to work for Pitney Bowes selling postage meters. He moved to Baltimore in 1940 and, during World War II, worked for the Glenn L. Martin Co. in Middle River. He later was employed at Bendix Radio in Towson and finally the Drummond Paving Co., from which he retired at age 70.

"You didn't work for Edison, you worked with him. He was just another guy, absolutely no conceit at all. In my mind, he was one of the greatest intellects who ever lived," he told the newspaper.

"Edison was quite the practical joker who loved to confuse the engineers by switching their drawings after they had gone home for the night or replacing the meat in their sandwiches with sliced erasers," said Shirley Neale of Perry Hall, a granddaughter of Mr. MacDonald's.

Into his 90s, Mr. MacDonald enjoyed visiting schools and telling students of his early days with the inventor he called the "Old Man," who when working nonstop on a project or new invention, would take catnaps on a leather couch in his office.

A deeply religious man, Mr. MacDonald had been an active member of the Forest Park and Arlington Presbyterian churches. In recent years, he was a parishioner of Havenwood Presbyterian Church in Timonium.

He was active with the St. Ambrose Housing Association and helped establish the Baltimore Rescue Mission for troubled youths.

Born and reared in Manhattan, the son of a New York Central Railroad engineer, Mr. MacDonald graduated from New York City public schools.

He liked recalling the century's early years: when New York City streets were filled with more horse-drawn vehicles than automobiles, the nearest telephone was down the street in a drugstore, his home was illuminated by oil lamps, and he spent summers milking cows, canoeing, camping and traveling on horseback at an uncle's farm in the Catskills.

He was married in 1924 to Ruth Reimer, who died in 1969. He was married in 1971 to Ethel Ruth Taeuber, who died in 1988.

An active man who drove into his 90s, he enjoyed walking.

A collector of hats, he often wore a white shirt and a tie made of dollar bills, which he kept anchored with a gold nugget tie tack that a cousin brought him from the Alaska Gold Rush of the 1890s.

"He always said that tie and tie tack were a good conversation starter," said his granddaughter.

Especially fond of desserts, Mr. MacDonald attributed his longevity to following a simple regimen.

"He said, `Eat nothing but food, and have a great many birthdays,' " said Mrs. Neale.

Services were held Tuesday.

He is survived by two daughters, Ruth Kratz of Newark, Del., and Elinor Rogers of Lancaster, Pa.; a stepdaughter, Betty Ryan of Baltimore; five other grandchildren; 16 great-grandchildren; and 23 great-great-grandchildren.

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