Oakdale’s Baron McDonald is thankful for many things. He has a great family, many friends, a good job and a nice home. A wonderful life, indeed.
This year, he’s also thankful that he got to spend a couple of days with a long-lost friend, reuniting after 41 years and just in time. The friend, Jack Sutton, died just two weeks after their visit at Sutton’s home in Arizona earlier this month.
How they became friends is a story in itself – one of those life-changing moments no child would ever want to experience but turned out for the best anyway. It began in 1964 when McDonald was 10 years old, the eldest of three children whose divorced mother worked as a waitress. His father was out of the picture.
“I’d started to be rebellious,” McDonald said, “not having good clothes, not enough food. Most women at that time could raise three kids. My mom couldn’t. She worked every day, leaving the three of us alone.”
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Overwhelmed by the responsibility, she downsized the family by taking him to Sierra Children’s Home in Vacaville. Yes, she’d threatened to place him in the foster care system. No, he didn’t believe she’d actually do it.
“I can remember seeing her driving off in her blue Volkswagen bug,” said McDonald, 59. “For several days, I didn’t unpack, thinking my mom would come back.”
Having been at the home awhile, Sutton already knew how that one would play out. As the rear bumper of the VW disappeared off into the distance that day, he approached McDonald and said, “You want to play some football with us?”
He also asked the folks running the home if he and McDonald could be roommates.
“Jack had been in the system longer,” McDonald said. “I think he knew what I was going through. We became like brothers. He took me under his wing.”
The operators of Sierra Children’s Home, which became part of the Agape Villages system, imposed rules and regulations and expectations.
“Every child needs structure,” McDonald said. “I realized later that I would have never lasted with Mom. I’d have been wa-a-ay in trouble. But in the foster system, there were chores and responsibilities. We did our own laundry, made our own beds. Not military, but like that. It saved me.”
So did having a friend. For the next eight years, including several with the same foster family, McDonald and Sutton were best buddies and roommates. They played sports together. They attended junior high and Santa Rosa’s Montgomery High together. Then, abruptly, their time in foster care ended. Both turned 18, and the foster family bent the rules a bit by allowing them to stay until they had graduated from high school.
When that happened, it was decision time.
“Jack went into the Marines,” McDonald said. “I went to college.”
They lost touch at that point, with Sutton shipping off to Germany and other parts of the world.
McDonald worked at a Sambo’s restaurant and for a construction company while attending Santa Rosa Junior College. There, he began dating a girl who encouraged him to try to find his father, whom he hadn’t seen in more than a decade.
His brother and sister never wanted to see their father again. But they hadn’t been left at a foster home by their mom, as had McDonald. He was curious about his father.
“When you’re 18 years old, you want to find out for yourself,” he said. “I’d heard he worked at Bank of America. She knew someone who worked for BofA and had a directory (of employees). There was a Clyde McDonald working at a Bank of America in Modesto.”
McDonald and the girlfriend drove to Modesto, stopping at a pay phone as they got into town. BofA had maybe four branches here at the time. The first one they tried was downtown. The receptionist immediately transferred the call to Clyde. They met him out in the bank’s parking lot a few minutes later. Clyde took them to lunch, and then to dinner.
“He started driving up to visit me in Santa Rosa every weekend,” McDonald said. “He offered to have me come live with him in Modesto, and get to know each other.”
So McDonald moved to Modesto and enrolled at Modesto Junior College. When Baron wanted to attend church, his father had a friend take him to First Baptist (now Crossroads Community Church) downtown. There, McDonald met his future wife, Rhonda. They married, now have two grown children and are grandparents.
McDonald and his father, who remarried, remained close until Clyde’s death in 2005. Clyde’s wife, Emma, will join the McDonalds today for Thanksgiving dinner. McDonald also reconnected with his mother, who had moved to Arkansas. They talk by phone periodically.
“I asked about him at our 30th-year high school reunion,” McDonald said. “No one seemed to know where he was.”
That changed a decade later. In 2012, Sutton posted on a reunion site for Montgomery High's Class of 1972.
“When I saw that, I emailed him immediately, and he emailed me right back,” McDonald said. “We started talking again.”
Health issues prevented Sutton from attending the reunion, though. Even so, they planned to get together one day, and a phone call on or about Nov. 4 from Sutton’s wife, Barbara, expedited the visit.
“His wife said he’d lost 50 pounds,” McDonald said. He and Rhonda caught the first available flight to Tucson, arriving a day later. “I was shocked when I saw him.”
Their visit lasted a couple of days. McDonald learned that both of Sutton’s sons died in separate auto accidents.
“He was really sad about that, but it made him happy to reminisce about the foster home, junior high, high school and different people,” said McDonald, who manages the Clark Pest Control branch in Sonora. He served on the Agape Villages board of directors until 2010 and still speaks publicly on the agency’s behalf.
His visit with Sutton was bittersweet. Yes, they finally reconnected and said they’d see each other again. But McDonald suspected otherwise. Sutton died two weeks later, on Nov. 19. They left so much unsaid. They still had so many years to revisit, so much catching up to do, and now when they finally reconnected, time ran out. A lesson learned.
“Because of the situation with Jack, we’ve made it a point to go see people we haven’t seen in awhile,” McDonald said. “Don’t procrastinate. When somebody needs you, go see them.”
So on this Thanksgiving Day, McDonald is thankful for his family, his friends, his life. He’s also thankful that his mom drove away that day in the Volkswagen and left him at Sierra Children’s Home, where he met Sutton.
“It saved me,” he said. “I’m thankful I was there.”
And he’s thankful for those few days earlier this month in Tucson, thankful to finally reconnect with an old, dear friend, and thankful he had the opportunity to say goodbye.