Dr. Sheila MacDonald Stearns, 76
June 7, 2023
Sheila MacDonald Stearns, educator, died Tuesday, May 23, due to complications from lung cancer. She leaves behind hundreds of grieving hearts because she was so loved by so many.
Sheila was born August 30, 1946, in Ft. Snelling, Minnesota, where her father, Alexander MacDonald, was stationed as a dentist during World War II. Her mother, Marie Peterson, was the daughter of Swedish homesteaders, raised near Highwood, Montana. Alex and Marie moved their family to Glendive, Montana in 1947. The six MacDonald kids treasured their free-range childhood spent exploring the banks of the Yellowstone River and nearby Makoshika State Park.
Sheila was a graduate of Sacred Heart School and Dawson County High School where she was Valedictorian, National Honor Society member, Science Fair and Spelling Bee champion, cheerleader, member of the Homecoming Court, and friend to so many in her class of 1964 and beyond.
Sheila arrived at the University of Montana in September 1964, where she pledged the Alpha Phi sorority and found many more lifelong friends. In Missoula, she met the love of her life, Hal Stearns, on a Newman Center retreat weekend. Each knew within days that they had found their soul mate, and what a great partnership it has been. They were engaged to be married at Homecoming in 1967 where Sheila was crowned UM Homecoming Queen.
Sheila embarked on an exciting and meaningful education career that began with teaching middle school English at the U.S. Air Force Base in Wiesbaden, Germany. Sheila and Hal made it a point to "see the world" during those three years in Europe.
They returned home to Missoula where Scott MacDonald Stearns was born, followed a few years later by Malin Jean-Marie Stearns. They raised their children in Missoula, Sheila's beloved home community, with the aid of Missoula's fine public schools.
Having earned advanced degrees from the University of Montana, Sheila served as UM's 18th President, after posts as Montana Commissioner of Higher Education, President of Wayne State College in Nebraska, Chancellor of UM Western in Dillon, Vice President and Alumni Director of UM, and teacher and librarian at Whittier Elementary School.
In 2012, she was honored as a Distinguished Alumni of the University of Montana. In 2017, Sheila and Hal were honored with the Governor's Humanities Award. She received an honorary Doctorate from Montana State University in 2018.
Sheila modeled a life of dedicated and tireless public service. Much of her career was devoted to serving, building, and improving Montana's well-respected higher education system. She earned the admiration and respect of everyone she encountered in education circles and in public service, on both sides of the aisle, whether she was at a PTA meeting, in the halls of the Legislature, in the Governor's office, or leading a campus community.
Sheila is survived by Hal, their children Scott and Malin, their spouses Julee Stearns and C.J. Johnson, and grandchildren Elise, Renn, and Lily Stearns, and Lexi, Mia, and Silas Johnson. She is also survived by MacDonald siblings and spouses: Mariellen Neudeck, Alice and Ray Down, Sandy and Susan MacDonald, her twin Peter and Kathleen MacDonald, Margie MacDonald and John Smillie; and by Stearns siblings and spouses: Jim Stearns, Nancy and Jim O'Kief, Michelle Stearns and Pat Smith, Tom Stearns and Noriko Mizoguchi, Jeanie Schmidt, Tim Stearns and Linda Clark, and many beloved nieces and nephews.
The University of Montana hosted a celebration of Sheila's life on Friday, June 2 in the UC Ballroom on the University of Montana Campus.
In lieu of flowers, please consider working to make education more obtainable for someone else, just as Sheila did for her kids, grandkids, and countless others. Memorials may be sent in Sheila's honor to the foundations of any of the many colleges she led and loved, including tribal and community colleges.