‘A gift to our community:’ $1M donation secures future of Missoula’s carousel

Alex McDonald

Patricia Donlin has fond memories of her younger brother, Alex McDonald. 

“He was a sweet, kind, generous man,” she said. “And a talented artist. He played the harmonica and violin. He was a perfectionist. He started off tying flies, but his big passion was wood carving. When the man who started the carousel in Missoula put out a search for carvers, Alex volunteered. He carved some of the horses and gargoyles, and stayed involved the rest of his life. The carousel was near and dear to his heart.”

And that, Donlin said, means Missoula’s carousel is also near and dear to her heart. So in honor of her brother, she recently donated $1 million to the nonprofit to help ensure it keeps on running far into the future. 

“I had the money, and wanted to do something nice in his memory,” she said.

The man who started the carousel is Chuck Kaparich. In 1991, he approached the Missoula City Council with a deal: He would provide the mechanical works, frame, horses and chariots if the city would give the carousel a permanent home.

“If you will give it a home, and promise no one will ever take it apart, I will build A Carousel for Missoula,” he said. 

The council agreed. The hand-carved carousel opened on May 27, 1995, along the Clark Fork River in Caras Park.

Theresa Cox standing alongside one of the carousel horses carved by Alex McDonald. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

McDonald’s work helped create it; his sister’s donation helps ensure no one will ever take it apart. 

“This is a gift to our community,” Theresa Cox, executive director of the carousel, said. “Our community came together to create this, and the community owns it and supports it. We can’t forget that; otherwise, it becomes just another carousel.”

In 2001, volunteers built a play area adjacent to the carousel called Dragon Hollow. In 2015, a museum was added, along with a carving room, where carvers create horses for other carousels throughout the world. It’s all run as a nonprofit.

“This past summer, we refurbished and expanded Dragon Hollow,” Cox said, “and made it more accessible to all.“

The carousel also experienced an unfortunate breakdown, Cox said. A cylinder bearing broke, and the carousel was closed for 15 days during the busiest time of year, during which Cox says they regularly take in $1,000 a day. Fortunately, they were able to find a volunteer, Andy Troutline, who made the repairs free of charge.

“We plan to put Patricia’s generous donation into an endowment account, so we can use the interest for special projects and emergencies like we had this summer,” Cox said. “Maybe something else will go wrong, and there won’t be an Andy around to fix it. We can use the interest from that money as needed, and not use the principal unless there’s a catastrophe.”

Patricia Donlin

The carousel’s annual budget is about $300,000, Cox said. Three-quarters of that is raised by the operation. The rest, about $70,000, comes from donations, fundraising events and grants.  

Cox called it fitting that Alex McDonald will be remembered at the carousel he cherished. 

Born and raised in Glendive, Montana, McDonald was a Missoula fireman for 24 years, and served as a battalion chief. He also served in the U.S. Army and Montana Army National Guard. He died in Hamilton, at the age of 84, on Sept. 5, 2018.  

“He was a very kind, gentle and creative man,” Cox said. “He would often stop by, excited to show us one of his recent creations, and loved seeing the children enjoying the rides on the ponies he helped create. This donation in his memory was made to all of us so we can continue to preserve the spirit of the carousel and Dragon Hollow.”  

Contact reporter Dave Stalling at: dstalling@missoulacurrent.com.