Mourning the Loss of a Local JDRF IL Champion and Friend


There’s nothing bad you can say about John J. McDonough. He was a self-made man. He served on JDRF’s International Board of Directors and was Chairman in 1999 to 2000. He and his wife, Marilyn, founded the BETA Society, for people who name JDRF in their estate plans. He was a poet. Well, no, he wasn’t…but that didn’t stop him from trying. And, he had “the ability to laugh in the face of some pretty awful things.”

This was “one of his best qualities,” said Allison, his eldest daughter.

He passed away on February 16 at the age of 84, from complications of type 1 diabetes (T1D).

He was a champion. A philanthropist. And, above all, a friend. He will be sorely missed.

Early YearsA young John McDonough on a sailboat cruising around

John was age 6 when he was diagnosed with T1D, in 1943. This was well before insulin pumps, continuous glucose monitors, and engineered insulin were around. John was told he would likely die by age 15. But, against all odds, John thrived.

He met Marilyn when he was 16, she 15. He graduated high school and attended the University of Notre Dame. John loved working as a campus photographer. His favorite gigs were photographing Louis Armstrong and his band, and President Eisenhower. John and Marilyn married before he graduated with honors and entered the business world as an accountant.

They began having children right away, and would go on to raise 5 McDonoughs (and 1 son-in-law, 2 daughters-in-law, 8 grandchildren, 3 granddaughters-in-law, and 3 great-grandchildren!).

Successful and Significant Life

Young John and Marilyn McDonough

John’s determination to control the disease is what helped him defy the odds. He had a successful career in business and finance spanning more than 50 years and several industries: manufacturing, marketing, medical and dental products, and telecommunications.

But John wanted significance, too. When he received Notre Dame’s Sorin Award, which is presented to a graduate who has rendered distinguished service to the university and community, he said: “Success is important because it makes education, care of family, and a reasonable lifestyle possible. Significance is about making your life count. They can be simultaneous or sequential, but without significance, one’s life cannot be a success.”

John and Marilyn McDonoughIt was the diagnosis of his daughter, Allison, with type 1 in 1983 that led John to take a driving interest in moving T1D research forward.

In addition to being a member of JDRF’s Board and founding chairman of the BETA Society, he served on many special committees for both JDRF International and JDRF’s Illinois Chapter. John and Allison testified before Congress at JDRF’s Children’s Congress in Washington, D.C. He received the Person of the Year Award from both the JDRF Southern Florida Chapter and the JDRF Illinois Chapter. He’s made significant gifts to help fund research for the past 25 years.

John McDonough and Family“We are much farther down the path of curing type 1 diabetes because of John’s efforts,” said Joe Lacher, now chairman of the JDRF International Board of Directors. “He was incredibly proud of the innovations—like continuous glucose monitors and the artificial pancreas—that benefited John, Allison, and the type 1 diabetes community. It is because of his efforts that people with the disease are living longer and healthier lives and curing type 1 is within reach.”

Love of Life, and Silly Jokes

You know how I said that the remarkable thing about John was his humor? Even in the face of diabetes complications, even in the face of losing his leg, he always had that.

John McDonough and Ron Santo comparing leg prosthetics
John and Ron Santo, comparing leg prosthetics

“After Dad lost his leg, we went together to get his first prosthetic leg,” recalled Allison. “Sitting in the waiting room, I was very surprised when all this grief welled up inside of me and I just started to weep. There I was, wailing away, and I could tell Dad was very upset because I was so upset. He said, ‘Hon, this amputation is really the best thing that could have happened.’ I just wasn’t in the mood to be spiritually advanced and was about to tell him that I loved his attitude, but I just couldn’t be positive right then. Then he continued, ‘I only worry about athlete’s foot half as much as I used to.’”

“I wasn’t expecting a joke,” said Allison. “I was stunned for a moment, but then we both started laughing through our tears. If others in the waiting room thought we were loons, I didn’t care. Once again, Dad showed his amazing ability to not let his diabetes dampen his spirit.”

Let’s hope that, someday, T1D won’t let anyone dampen one’s spirit again—because we have found cures for the disease. Until that day comes, we will fund research that will get us there.

We also wanted to share a recent video, featuring John, and his amazing spirit. John, you will be missed.