From ‘disaster’ to one of biggest fans for St. FX

Published on May 30, 2014

Kent MacDonald,left, with retiring ST.FX president Sean Riley, was recently appointed 18th president of St.FX 

More than 35 years ago a New Glasgow junior high school teacher told a mother her Grade 7 son would never amount to much.

The boy was, in the learned teacher’s opinion, “a disaster,” interested only in friends and sports, never in his school work.  

Fortunately, the mother was not convinced, but neither she nor the boy ever forgot that teacher’s words.

The boy, Dr. Kent MacDonald, formerly of Cameron Avenue and Chelsea Court, was recently announced as the 18th president of St. Francis Xavier University.

“I swear it is a true story, repeated many times by my mother,” said MacDonald.

Lately he has been telling the story himself as he did when, armed with a new PhD in higher education management, he became president of Ottawa’s Algonquin in 2012.

“I tell the story for two reasons. Firstly, it motivated me, though not right away. Secondly, it illustrates how no educator should ever, ever put a frame like that around a student.”

MacDonald’s parents, Dr. Vern MacDonald of Bridgewater and Ann MacEachern of Antigonish, moved to New Glasgow to open an optometry practice and raise a family. They raised two sons and two daughters, each of whom attended the old West Side School and then A.G. Baillie.

“George Manos was my principal and my hockey coach. I’m still friends with his son Paul and his sisters, Michelle and Mary Beth.”

He proudly remembers New Glasgow High School winning three provincial championships while he was there, two in hockey and one in rugby. With some reluctance he admits to also having been in the school band.

“Bob Wong was first trumpet and pretty good. I was fourth trumpet, probably the worst trumpet player the band ever had. ”

MacDonald spent a lot of time at the YM-YWCA.

“I was really into swimming. I taught Bronze Medallion at 16 and I lifeguarded at Melmerby during the summers – a lot of responsibility but a great place to work.”

Because his grandparents lived in Antigonish, and both parents were X graduates and active alumni, MacDonald was familiar with the campus from an early age and had no plans to go anywhere else.

“It might have had something to do with all the football and hockey games I attended. I remember a lot of Saturdays when my father or George Manos would load up the car with kids and we’d head off to the game. We probably got to half the games every season and we loved being there.”

MacDonald’s first degree was in physical education and he did his practice teaching back in New Glasgow with Ron Paris. He married another phys-ed grad, Mary-Ellen MacPhee, who is now principal at an Ottawa Catholic school.

MacDonald and his family have returned to Nova Scotia every summer but he was back at St. FX on his own, studying for his master’s degree in education, when his second child was born.  

“We were just young, teaching in Ottawa and starting a family, trying to get ahead like everybody else, but I was starting to see the benefit of a second degree so we scraped together the money for tuition. I went back to St. FX for the summer and stayed with my grandmother. Unfortunately, I missed Matthew’s birth. I’ve been reminded many times since.”

One of MacDonald’s personal regrets about leaving Algonquin College is that he won’t be on the stage next year to hand Matthew his business degree. MacDonald’s wife and youngest son, Patrick, will be staying in Ottawa for at least a year while he gets accustomed to his responsibilities at St. FX.  

His attendance record at Ottawa Senators games has been pretty good but is apt to suffer in the coming season.

“I’ll still be following them. You never know, between Paul MacLean and I, we might be able to turn all those Leafs and Bruins fans.”

After 25 years of living in Ottawa, he concedes he will miss a few things.

“But St. FX has had 18 presidents in 161 years so a job like this only comes around once.”

Working in Antigonish puts him in closer proximity to his parents who are retired in Halifax and he will not be without family on campus as his daughter Meagan will be starting her second year in arts in September. His oldest son, Adam, graduated from St. FX in 2013.

“It wasn’t until my last year at X that I really buckled down to work but I got so much out of those years. Then returning, as a mature student, to do my masters, that’s when I really developed how I looked at the world. The X culture is not seen on every campus. Not everywhere has the same connection between student, faculty and community. Long before I got this position, I was touting St. F.X. as a model for what education should be.”

An Internet search of MacDonald’s speeches verifies his frequent testaments to St. FX but also turns up tributes to his hometown. Back in 2011 he protested Money Sense Magazine’s rating New Glasgow as the worst place in Canada to live. Despite living in Ottawa, the city deemed most “livable,” he wondered if the magazine’s “Toronto-centric writers” had ever walked Melmerby Beach on a warm summer evening or enjoyed a winter afternoon skate on a neighborhood outdoor rink. Perhaps, he speculated, these writers have never had the pleasure of sharing great music with old friends at Riverfront Jubilee or walking home after midnight, confident they were completely secure in doing so.

Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think should she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at