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Neil C. Macdonald


After defeat in the November 1918 election, long-time North Dakota educator and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Neil Macdonald refused to vacate his office.

Born in Canada, on March 17, 1876, he immigrated to Cavalier County with his parents in 1885 and attended county schools. At 16, Macdonald was awarded a teaching certificate.

He taught in rural Cavalier County schools and attended Mayville Normal School, receiving his degree and first-grade teaching certificate on May 25, 1896. He then embarked on his mission to improve the educational opportunities for North Dakota’s rural students.

Macdonald enrolled at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Between sessions, he taught in Cavalier County and served as deputy state Superintendent of Public Instruction in Bismarck for two months.

After graduating in 1900, he continued teaching. Between 1911 and 1917, he worked in various Department of Public Instruction positions. Elected as state superintendent in November 1916, he had the opportunity to improve North Dakota’s rural schools.

Endorsed by the Nonpartisan League in 1918, he ran again and was defeated by Minnie J. Nielson, by 5,547 votes. Macdonald was devastated. He and other NPL leaders contested the election results, saying Nielson did not meet the office’s educational requirements.

Following party advice, Macdonald refused to vacate the office on January 1. Nielson appealed to NPL-elected Attorney General William Langer and, on January 10, he secured a writ from the state Supreme Court forcing Macdonald to vacate.

The Burleigh County District Court also ruled in Nielson’s favor and, on October 10, 1919, the state Supreme Court upheld the decision.

Long-time friend and then Governor Lynn J. Frazier continued supporting Macdonald and recommended to the 1919 Legislature a simplified education system and creation of a new board for overall supervision.

The proposal passed, and the Board of Administration took effect on July 1, 1919. It created a new position of educational advisor and general school inspector, and Macdonald filled the position, at the same salary as the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The Board also created an Educational Commission of five members, including Nielson and four members chosen by Macdonald. Nielson protested to no avail, and Macdonald supporters were appointed.

With continued controversy, Macdonald resigned in April 1920. He left North Dakota an unhappy man, later writing home to his family, “Left North Dakota . . . to begin anew as a schoolman after being despoiled by the crooked politicians in North Dakota . . . .”

However, Macdonald was unable to begin anew, finding himself blackballed from teaching. He enrolled at Harvard College to complete his Doctor in Education degree, earning it on June 23, 1921.

His bitterness had affected his mental state. Macdonald had gained considerable weight, causing himself serious health problems, and he spent much of his remaining months in and out of hospitals.

Macdonald died on September 8, 1923, while he and his wife, Katrine, were on their way to Seattle for teaching positions.

On December 2, 1926, Macdonald was posthumously honored at a Bismarck ceremony for the major role he had played in North Dakota’s education system and in the educational lives of rural children throughout the state.

By Cathy A. Langemo, WritePlus Inc.