For more than half a century, Walt McDonald lived and breathed real estate as a salesperson, broker, and industry leader. The 2004 president of the National Association of REALTORS®, a longtime resident of Riverside, Calif., passed away on Jan. 29. He was 84.
McDonald recognized the real estate industry was experiencing a kind of “golden age” when he became the 96th NAR president. Low mortgage rates, high homeownership rates, and brisk home sales made for a buoyant period in the industry. For the first time, NAR surpassed 1 million members.
When friends throughout the association learned of his death, tributes poured in, recalling not just McDonald’s capable leadership but also his kindness and his particular fondness for ice cream. His go-to was vanilla Häagen-Dazs with a drizzle of chocolate syrup.
Nowhere Else but Real Estate
The youngest of four children, McDonald grew up poor in Enid, Okla., near the end of the Great Depression. He moved to California to take a summer job after high school and never left.
After a four-year tour of duty with the U.S. Marines, McDonald bought into a struggling concrete business. When the company became profitable, he sold his share and looked for another opportunity. He got his real estate license in 1964.
“Big companies didn’t want me because I didn’t have any experience, so I went with a small one. I sold a house my first day on the job,” McDonald recounted to REALTOR® Magazine in a 2004 profile. He opened his own company in 1969, and soon he had 17 sales associates.
“It’s the only career where a poor kid from Oklahoma could gain this level of success and get to help a lot of people,” he added.
As he got more deeply involved with REALTOR® association duties at the local and state level, McDonald scaled back his business to a single office and two associates.
He was president of the California Association of REALTORS® in 1993. Joel Singer, the California association’s longtime CEO, says. “Walt will be fondly remembered for his dedication to organized real estate and will truly be missed by all who knew him.” Singer says McDonald never lost sight of the core mission of REALTORS® to help others achieve their goals of property ownership.
A Year of Opportunity
In 2004, NAR recorded nearly 6.68 million existing-home sales. During that prosperous time, McDonald was able to help advance a number of important initiatives that continue to support members and keep the industry strong today.
“We were taking our first steps toward what is now the association’s Strategic Business Innovation and Technology group,” says NAR CEO Bob Goldberg. “Walt played an instrumental role, launching NAR’s lockbox solution, SentriLock, during his Leadership Summit in 2003.”
Scott Fisher, SentriLock founder and CEO, added to the sentiment. “He helped us lay the foundation for the company as a board member while always reminding us how our service was critical to REALTORS® carrying out their business. His calm and patient guidance will be remembered.”
During his NAR presidency, McDonald also oversaw the successful defense of the REALTOR® trademark, passage of the NAR-backed American Dream Down Payment Initiative, and a multiyear authorization of the National Flood Insurance Program.
“Walt was a leader among leaders. He was a guiding light, encouraging and mentoring many into leadership roles at all levels,” says Diana Bull, a broker from Santa Barbara, Calif., and a 2020 NAR Distinguished Service Award winner. “He was soft-spoken, but when he spoke, everyone admired his words of wisdom.”
Asked at the beginning of his term how he’d measure his performance at the end of his tenure, McDonald said, “If we’ve provided more benefit to the members and strengthened the organization,” he says, “then I will consider this year a success.”
On all counts, it’s fair to say, mission accomplished—with a cherry on top.
McDonald’s family has requested that donations be made to the Walt McDonald Perpetual Scholarship in care of the C.A.R. Scholarship Foundation at https://www.car.org/en/difference/scholarships/makeacontribution.