published Friday, May 16th, 2014

Southeast Whitfield High School teacher gets surprise honors

Jeff McDonald, technology teacher at Southeast Whitfield High School and a Marine Corps veteran, is embraced by his wife, Paige, as he is honored by local Marines, school staff and students Thursday in Dalton. Marines Lance Cpl. Edwin Guevard, near right, and Sgt. Charles Huff, back right, stand at attention.
Jeff McDonald, technology teacher at Southeast Whitfield High School and a Marine Corps veteran, is embraced by his wife, Paige, as he is honored by local Marines, school staff and students Thursday in Dalton. Marines Lance Cpl. Edwin Guevard, near right, and Sgt. Charles Huff, back right, stand at attention.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Jeff McDonald expected to hear his name called. That's it.

A routine had been established on Thursday morning at the senior honor's assembly at Southeast Whitfield High School: Someone shouted out the name of a teacher or administrator who was retiring, and people cheered, and someone made a joke about the soon-to-be retiree, and everyone moved on to the next person.

So here was McDonald, ready for it.

"JEFFFF...."

Wait. No. No quick shout out. Here came three U.S. Marines, walking through the gym, carrying an American flag, folded into a triangle, framed with glass. It was a gift from the office of U.S. Rep. Tom Graves to McDonald, a Marine veteran and a teacher of 30 years.

Then McDonald watched his wife and two daughters walk to the front of the gym. He didn't expect that. Then he saw 27-year-old Joey Jones.

He really didn't expect that.

"He's like a second son to me," McDonald said.

Jones, who will graduate from Georgetown University today with a liberal studies degree, received a Facebook message a couple weeks ago from Chris Anderson. Anderson used to work with McDonald at Southeast Whitfield, and he wanted to honor his friend before McDonald's career ended next week.

So Anderson organized a celebration at the end of Thursday's honors assembly. In addition to the flag from Graves' office, representatives from the Marine Corps League offered McDonald a lifetime membership, and his family gave him a shadowbox filled with the medals McDonald earned during the first Persian Gulf War.

Jones then gave a speech. He flew into town Wednesday night to honor McDonald, then he returned to Washington, D.C., for his graduation today.

The two men met back in 1997, when McDonald coached Jones' sixth-grade football team. Jones was also best friends with McDonald's son, Chris.

After high school, Jones and Chris McDonald both enlisted in the Marines. Jones would lose both his legs after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, though he maintains that he does not regret his service.

Chris McDonald also returned to the United States changed. He came back from Iraq addicted to painkillers and shaken from the images of war. One day, his mother came home to find him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Since then, Jeff and Paige have shared their story with many outlets, hoping to raise awareness about suicides and attempted suicides among war veterans. This drove McDonald, 56, toward retirement.

"I've had a lot of personal tragedy in my life, and I'm dealing with a lot right now," he said. "I think it would be good for me to just close this chapter in my life."

McDonald, who is a technology teacher, wants to get a job at a computer shop, where he can fix machines in private. Still, he loved his current gig.

Students told them their problems -- students who had been abused, students who couldn't afford shoes, students who had been raped. He felt called to be in their lives.

"I stayed for 30 years in a classroom by choice," he said. "I led men in combat. I could run a school. I could do this stuff with one eye closed. But I chose not to. I chose to stay with the kids, and that's what interested me."

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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