At 77, Esther Johnson McDonald is still active in the day-to-day operation of the 9,000-acre Triangle Ranch in Philipsburg, Montana, with her husband of 51 years, John W. “Pat” McDonald. The two met at a bull sale in Missoula. Her mother operated a ranch in Darby, so Esther had an idea what she was getting into. She also had the foresight to earn a degree in animal sciences in 1948.
In years past, she cooked for ranch hands, while raising three sons and five daughters. The ranch is 75 miles southeast of Missoula in a mile-high mountain valley. “Some of the best feeder cattle come out of the Flint Creek Valley,” she says. “It’s a gorgeous place. You don’t need to go anywhere else.”
The Triangle Ranch has been in the family since 1865. “We’re proud of our heritage, and being able to keep the ranch all this time,” she says. Despite an erratic cattle market, the family never has come close to losing the ranch. “We just tightened our belts and learned to live within our means.”
All eight children are college graduates. One lives in Boise. The others live in the immediate area.
The 2004 outstanding alumna in the Department of Animal Sciences attributes any success she’s had to what she learned at Washington State University. Her mentor was M.E. “Gene” Ensminger, chair of animal sciences (1942-62), who wanted students in his Animal Husbandry 101 class to be well rounded.
She is past president of the Montana Cattle Women, Inc., and presently serves as the organization’s legislative chair. She’s active in the county and state Republican Party. She also spent a quarter century as a 4-H leader.
McDonald was one of six female students to enroll in animal sciences in 1944 and graduate together four years later. “The guys in our department treated us as equals,” she says.
Everett Martin, longtime WSU animal sciences professor, praises McDonald as a role model for women seeking careers in animal agriculture. “She’s accomplished her goals in a field of study once considered by many not fit for a woman.” He reports that 36 of the 42 graduates in the animal sciences department for 2003-04 were women. She came to WSU because of her interest in agriculture, specifically animal nutrition. She arrived in Pullman in 1944 aboard a B-17 “Flying Fortress” with test pilot “Slim” Lewis at the controls. His boss was Esther’s father, Philip Johnson, late CEO of Boeing, who passed away shortly before she enrolled.