At his Catholic elementary and middle school, George ate breakfast with the priests; he later credited them with his upbringing and attributed his moral fervor to teachings by nuns. 

The New York Times on Thursday posted an obituary for George McDonald, who died at 76 after a battle with cancer. The paper described as a “power broker for the powerless,” for his extraordinary work with New York City’s homeless:

After a childhood in which his father was absent and his mother died young of tuberculosis, Mr. McDonald dropped out of college in the mid-1960s and hurled himself into work, rising from department store salesman in New Jersey to executive postings at leading New York City clothing companies.

But he became disenchanted with the privileges of the corporate world at the sight of New York’s streets, parks and train stations seemingly filling with a new social class: “the homeless.”

“He got tired of stepping over people that looked like garbage on the streets after spending $250 at that time for lunch,” Ms. Karr-McDonald [his wife] said.

Quitting his job in the early 1980s, a period when he was single and distant from his family, Mr. McDonald took a vow of poverty. He moved into a single-room-occupancy building with space for only a chair and a single bed, and a shared bathroom in the hallway. He started a minimum-wage job in a law firm mailroom and declined promotions, hoping to demonstrate the viability of life at the bottom of the labor market. For nearly two years he volunteered every night with the Coalition for the Homeless, spending hours distributing food to the destitute camped inside Grand Central.

On Christmas Day 1985, one woman whom Mr. McDonald had befriended, known only as Mama, died outside the train station after being expelled from it by the police on their nightly rounds. She was clutching a scarf that Mr. McDonald had given her for Christmas. Not for the last time, he was called to the morgue to identify a homeless person’s corpse.

Resolving to end his nights at Grand Central and start working for the homeless on a larger scale, he formed the Doe Fund, naming it in honor of Mama, whom the authorities called Mama Doe after her death.

The Doe Fund went on to become a driving force in New York. As the Times described it:

Since its founding in 1985, the Doe Fund has become a sprawling organization, with an annual budget of around $65 million. As its leader and public face, Mr. McDonald gained prominence in New York’s political and philanthropic circles.

The Doe Fund is best known for its army of garbage baggers and street sweepers in blue jumpsuits deployed to neighborhoods across Manhattan and Brooklyn, all of them embodying Mr. McDonald’s philosophy about how best to ameliorate homelessness and break the cycle of prison recidivism: Give people opportunities to re-enter society through steady if humble work.

His views grew out of the many conversations he had with homeless people during his long period as a volunteer distributing food.

But buried near the end of the obituary is this salient detail from his childhood:

George Thomas McDonald was born on April 28, 1944, in Spring Lake, N.J. His father, John, was an insurance executive, and his mother, Helen (Storminger) McDonald, was a homemaker. George’s father left the family before he was born, and George spent much of his childhood visiting his mother, sick with tuberculosis, in the hospital. When he was 4 years old, the police picked him up while he was biking alone on his tricycle. They drove him home and found nobody there.

At his Catholic elementary and middle school, George ate breakfast with the priests; he later credited them with his upbringing and attributed his moral fervor to teachings by nuns.

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Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him…

For more on the Doe Fund, check out the short video below. There is a profound Christian witness in this work, testifying to the dignity of the person.