Legislative veteran always ready to talk
"Sit down, let’s talk,” Ray MacDonald said, looking up from a plate of eggs, hash browns and toast.
MacDonald is a regular at Timmy’s Restaurant in Conimicut and his ability to engage people he may not have seen for years is a MacDonald trademark. There’s no question that had a lot to do with why voters returned him to the state House of Representatives for four terms and his success as a salesman as well.
MacDonald grew up in Warwick, although he lived long enough in Florida to know that he had to come back, still lives here and at the age of 89, continues to work. He also follows politics and is of the opinion that party divisiveness is ruining the country.
These days, MacDonald is peddling used bicycles and an assortment of collectibles not expected to make him rich but likely to keep him busy and meeting people. Money, or rather the lack of it, has played a big role in his life.
Born Feb. 13, 1923, MacDonald grew up in “Starvation Plat,” as he calls it. The plat is behind what is now Gov. Francis Inn on Warwick Avenue and consisted of 27 homes, of which 16 were occupied by white families. The remaining 11 were families of color.
“There were never any problems. We all got along,” MacDonald said.
It was the Great Depression and money was tight. His father was an alcoholic and left the family. MacDonald grew up living with his aunts and uncles and sometimes with his mother. He attended Spring Green School, now operated by the House of Hope, and then went on to Aldrich when it incorporated junior and senior high school. But MacDonald never graduated. He couldn’t afford to. He left school in the 10th grade to work.
He held odd jobs, including as a caddy at the Massasoit Country Club, a 9-hole golf course across from Aldrich on Post Road that was later developed into housing. Opportunity was knocking and, rather than staying in school, he realized he made $15 a week working for the Browns on the farm that was developed into the Gov. Francis Farm housing development in 1939. Among his many jobs, MacDonald, along with Jimmy Gugiama, was responsible for putting the farm’s herd of 40 cows out to pasture after milking and then driving them home for another milking, which was done by hand.
He stayed at the farm for a year before a string of truck driving jobs that began with Byron Jordan. He said there was a lot of road building and C. C. Plumb had him driving trucks that sprayed oil on the roads, followed by a spreading of sand.
Then there was World War II.
MacDonald tried enlisting in the Marines Corps but was refused for color blindness. The Seabees took him and MacDonald, for much of his three years in the service, was stationed in the Aleutian Islands building airfields and fortification in anticipation of a Japanese attack. Toward the end of the war, he was involved in the invasion of Saipan and Okinawa. When he was discharged, MacDonald said, “I was unsure what I wanted to do.”
He learned Sears was opening a store on North Main Street in Providence and became the 13th Rhode Islander to be hired. He stayed for 12 years, during which time he married Catherine – who goes by Kay – and had two sons, Robert and Kenneth, when the family lived in Gaspee Plateau.
MacDonald turned down the manager’s position at the New Bedford store and he turned down an even more handsome offer to head New England sales that would have put him at corporate headquarters in Chicago. MacDonald said he was advised that he could stay at Sears as long as he wanted but he probably wouldn’t be offered more promotions.
In 1962, he struck out on his own.
“I bought little houses and modernized them,” he said.
He went into the construction business, building about 90 houses and stores. He was also in the real estate and insurance businesses, among other ventures. He never worked for someone else again, other than the people of Warwick.
MacDonald turned down his first offer in politics in 1952, for the Eisenhower presidential campaign. But the Republicans didn’t give up and it wasn’t too long before MacDonald was involved with the Ward 1 GOP committee and the Warwick Young Republicans.
“Look at me, you can tell I’m a Republican,” he answers.
He cites his experience as a small business owner, adding that members of his family were Republicans and “We help others.”
In 1970, he was a possible candidate for mayor but MacDonald opted to seek the House seat Robert Breslin was leaving to run for state senator. It was a House seat MacDonald held for eight years.
At that time, legislators were paid $300; and they didn’t have offices; and they couldn’t show up in sports shirts.
“You had to have a tie and jacket,” he said.
The objective was to serve the people.
“They’re elected people, when are they going to stop this stuff?” MacDonald asked of today’s legislative pay. He also is critical of legislators who promote their own agendas rather than for the good of the state.
MacDonald said when Republican Raymond Stone was mayor, “the money was rolling in and taxes were low.” Today is different and “it’s getting worse and worse.”
He thinks Mayor Scott Avedisian is doing a good job, given the circumstances.
MacDonald never favored expansion of the airport.
“It is sweeping down the houses,” he said. And he can’t see the value of the Interlink, a rail connection, or a longer runway.
“What’s the matter with these people?” he asks. “Don’t they know what $168 million is?”
MacDonald has had a few health issues, but he doesn’t dwell on them. His philosophy is that “life takes care of itself.”
But, even at 89, MacDonald isn’t one to dawdle.
His latest business has him out on the road talking and meeting people and doing something he loves.
“I’m a salesman. I can’t sit at home in a rocking chair,” he said.