Visit The University of Texas homepage

William Thomas McDonald, Sr. (1911-1985)

Judge, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, 1960-1964
Presiding Judge, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, 1964-1966

William Thomas McDonald was born September 28, 1911, in Madisonville, Texas, into an old Texas family. His great-grandfather was a Presbyterian minister and early missionary who had come to Texas from Nashville, Tennessee, in 1939. His grandfather, a justice of the peace in the Midway precinct and later county judge of Madison County, was imprisoned briefly after killing a political adversary in the Madisonville courthouse in 1880. An uncle was mayor of San Antonio in 1852, before being murdered by a political rival. McDonald's father was in the mercantile business in Madisonville until 1918, when he moved the family, which included two sons, to Bryan. He managed the Bryan Country Club and then was a campus security officer at Texas A & M University for twenty-five years.

W.T. McDonald landed his first job in 1923, when he was twelve years old, as a paperboy delivering The Bryan Daily Eagle on his bicycle. He graduated from Bryan's Stephen F. Austin High School in 1930, entered Texas A & M, and graduated in 1933. His goal from early boyhood had been to become an attorney, and he had hoped to attend The University of Texas law school, but the economic circumstances of the Great Depression interrupted his plans. Instead he sold life insurance briefly and then relocated to Austin, where he took a position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At night McDonald studied law at the state library, and he passed the bar exam in 1936. That year he ran his first campaign for public office, becoming a member of the Texas House of Representatives at the age of twenty-five. He was married in 1939, and had a son and a daughter. McDonald practiced law in Bryan, and was reelected to the Texas legislature in 1938, 1940, and 1942, serving four terms. In 1945 he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and served until his discharge in November of that year.

Following his military service, McDonald served as Bryan city attorney from 1950 to 1954, when he was elected judge of the 85th District Court of Brazos County. He took office in January 1955, was reelected in 1958, and served until the end of 1960. Meanwhile, McDonald had begun taking law courses at The University of Texas in 1953, at the age of forty-two. He also completed a master's degree in education at Texas A & M in 1956. In 1960, twenty-four years after being licensed to practice law, he achieved his goal of completing an LL.B. degree from The University of Texas School of Law.

The same year, 1960, McDonald was elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Two years later, he made an unsuccessful run for attorney general, and subsequently was defeated by Judge John F. Onion, Jr. for reelection to the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1966. He was presiding judge of the court from 1964 to 1966.

Following his court service, McDonald returned to Bryan, where he resumed his law practice and was involved in community activities. A life-long heavy cigarette smoker, McDonald died of lung cancer in a Bryan hospital on February 6, 1985, at the age of seventy-three. He was buried in the Bryan City Cemetery. His son, W. T. McDonald, Jr., followed his father's path, became an attorney, and also sat on the bench of the 85th District Court.


W.T. McDonald, Jr. Profile of A Lone Star Legacy: W. T. McDonald 1911-1985 (Yantis, TX: Heirloom Memoirs, 2001).