Anchorage arts beacon Bettie McDonald dies at 77

Mike Dunham
Anchorage Daily News archive

Bettie Jean McDonald, respected Anchorage educator, powerhouse singer and former member of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, died in Hermosa Beach, Calif., on April 1. She was 77.

She first came to Alaska as an Air Force wife in 1960 and became an instant musical celebrity in town, singing with the Anchorage Community Chorus, Alaska Festival of Music and Anchorage Symphony. Her name remained prominent in the Alaska art world for the next three decades.

Born in rural Tennessee on June 11, 1934, she was 10 years old when her mother died and she was sent to live with her grandmother in Knoxville. Her singing talent was quickly noticed by church and school music directors.

Her musicianship earned her a full scholarship at Knoxville College. By the time she graduated in 1957, she had toured 44 of the then-48 states with college ensembles and been featured as a soloist.

Shortly after she entered college, she met Edward McDonald, an airman at McGhee-Tyson Air Force Base. The two married in 1954.

She became the choir director at Elmendorf Chaple 3 after her husband was assigned to Alaska, in addition to singing with area groups. She was named Anchorage "Mother of the Year" in 1962. That same year she became the voice professor and choral conductor at newly opened Alaska Methodist University.

In 1964 Edward McDonald was transferred out of Alaska to a series of duty stations that included a tour in Vietnam. The family drove out on the mostly-unpaved Alaska Highway.

"I cried all the way to Tok," Bettie recalled. "I really hated to leave. I didn't think we'd ever be back."

For the next few years she and her children lived in Colorado Springs, Colo. She directed music programs in that city's schools and, as in Anchorage, became a star attraction for local concerts there. She was a soloist in "Messiah" and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and sang Delilah in Saint-Saens' opera.

She was named Colorado Springs' "Woman of the Year" in 1969. But she said her proudest achievement during that time was winning the national 1966 Valley Forge Teachers Medal for furtherance of patriotism in classes. McDonald was cited for her research on American Indian music, its history and methods for applying it in classrooms.

In 1969 the McDonalds returned to Anchorage.

"Somebody must have heard my prayers because we were sent back here and I'm so happy about it," she said. "This is the only place I know where a human being can accomplish anything he sets out to do. I'm at home here."

Picking up where she left off, she sang with the Alaska Festival of Music. The festival's guest conductor, A. Clyde Roller, an assistant with the Houston Symphony, invited her to perform Brahms' "Alto Rhapsody" before a crowd of 11,000 at an outdoor concert -- no microphone -- in Texas in June, 1972.

The respected critic of the Houston Post, Carl Cunningham, called her voice "unfailingly perfect and natural ... amazingly pure, unwavering and full of beauty and dignity. She is presently a high school vocal teacher and must certainly have the most fortunate class of students in the entire 50 states."

At that time she was teaching music at East High School. In her 36 years with the Anchorage School District, she also taught at Clark and Wendler junior high schools and chaired the arts department when Bartlett-Begich combined schools first opened, creating the school's swing choir, the Bear-A-Tones. She also taught at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

In her prime she possessed a broad, rich, powerful voice, comfortably encompassing both soprano and alto ranges, capable of singing both Tosca and the "Alto Rhapsody."

She was not hesitant to take on modern music, singing Bernstein's "Jeremiah" Symphony in 1975 and taking on the role of Ann Putnam in Robert Ward's "The Crucible" in 1970. She sang some of the first performances of Mahler songs in Anchorage, including "Kindertotenlieder" in 1979.

She was one of the soloists who performed when Pope John-Paul II conducted mass at Holy Family Cathedral during his visit to Anchorage in 1981.

In 1976, Gov. Jay Hammond appointed her to the Alaska State Council on the Arts.

She is survived by her four children, Rod McDonald of Hermosa Beach, Ben McDonald of Olympia, Wash., Lauri King of Anchorage and Lila McDonald of Oakland, Calif.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

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