Jim Macdonald: Northwest Side Hero
Updated: Jun 28
Here is the fourth story in my Northwest Side Hero Project, highlighting stories about local heroes (as nominated by their neighbors), who are doing great things in the neighborhood. We need more people just like them!
“I believe very strongly in contributing to the area you live in—for the environment and for the people.”
James (Jim) Macdonald loves nature, Indian food, and listening to live jazz. Recently, he spends much of the winter near the Florida Everglades, but he has called the Northwest side of Chicago home for the past 26 years, where he has loyally served Gompers Park and the North Mayfair Improvement Association, among other organizations.
His résumé would be full of accomplishments: he helped develop a recycling program before the city implemented their own, he has written a nature column in the North Mayfair Improver for the past 20 years, organizes park clean ups, leads nature walks and workdays at Gompers Park, and has helped to restore natural wetlands there.
Jim can trace his environmental roots back to his childhood in Northern Canada, where his outdoorsman father taught him and his brother to respect nature, taking both of them hunting, fishing, and out picking berries. He also saw at a young age what could happen when people neglect nature.
“I saw what humans could do to a pristine environment. I watched as two giant smoke stacks killed everything in sight with sulfur dioxide,” Jim remembers.
That experience, though tragic, may have shaped Jim into the nature steward he is today.
“I’ve tried to lead people, especially kids, to see the nature around them and that we need to help that along.”
From Canada, Jim moved to the East Lakeview area in 1968. He fell in love with the lakefront running path and became a founding member of Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) in the early '70s. An avid marathon runner, he traveled to many states to run the 26.2 miles. He and his wife moved to North Mayfair in 1990.
“The neighborhood here is truly wonderful, with Labagh Woods, Gompers Park, the Chicago River, and easy access to transportation.”
Jim, with his wife Judy (who passed away 5 years ago), has gotten to know this area well after 26 years.
“It’s a neighborhood where grandkids tend to buy houses from their grandparents. So there’s a certain amount of stability and community.”
Yet Jim has seen the neighborhood become more diverse, with people from Central America, the Mid East and the Far East moving into the area.
“This is a city—it should be diverse!”
Prior to retiring in 2001, Jim was a professor of anthropology at Northeastern Illinois University, where he started teaching in 1968. He and his wife Judy (also an anthropology professor) traveled all over the national parks and wilderness areas. They didn’t have children of their own, but have enjoyed plenty of nieces and nephews, including a niece who is now following in her uncle’s footsteps, teaching archaeology at the University of Tulsa.
Though retired, he hasn’t slowed down at all. This self-described “flexitarian” rarely eats meat but loves food from every part of the world, and he frequently samples ethnic restaurants all over—including his own neighborhood. Some highlights:
Fancy Nepalese cuisine? Check out Himshikar, 6031 N. Cicero Avenue
Ever eaten Brazilian? Visit Brazilian Bowl, 3200 W. Lawrence Avenue
Want to try Yemeni food? Check out Shibam City, 4807 N. Elston Avenue
“If you’re interested in Indian food, I’m someone to talk to. I know many of the chefs along Devon.”
Jim also loves Chicago’s live music scene, going out to jazz clubs several times a week. His line-up for one week last spring included:
Monday: Serbian Village for a jazz jam
Tuesday: Green Mill listening to the Fat Babies
Friday: Northeastern Illinois University for a classical string quartet
Sunday: The HonkeyTonk BBQ
Did I mention Jim is almost 77 years old?
“I like to keep busy. It keeps me young.”
His energy and appetite for life is contagious. His advice to fellow Chicagoans?
"Get involved! Look at your neighborhood and see what’s needed. Most communities have park advisory councils or neighborhood associations that can always use more volunteers. There’s always a way to get involved if you have a desire for it. If you see something you don't like, organize and fix it.”
Nora Kerr is the owner of Memoir for Me, creating memory books to capure a life story.