William Johnson McDonald, lawyer, banker, and philanthropist, eldest son of Henry Graham and Sarah (Johnson) McDonald, was born on a farm near Howland, Texas, on December 21, 1844. He attended McKenzie College, where Rev. John W. P. McKenzie was guardian of the orphaned William and his two brothers. McDonald left college in 1864 to join the Confederate Army but returned when the war ended and was graduated in 1867. He received a thorough classical training and developed a deep interest in astronomy, botany, zoology, and geology.
He supported himself for the next two or three years by teaching school and plying the printer's trade while studying law. He opened a law office in Clarksville in 1881 and became recognized as one of the best civil lawyers of Northeast Texas. He also prospered financially; from a small beginning as a moneylender, he advanced to the presidency of banks that he organized in Clarksville, Paris, and Cooper. On the establishment of the Paris bank in 1887, he moved to that city, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Increasing wealth made little change in his habits; he continued to work hard and to live modestly. He cared nothing for social life and took no active part in public affairs. Though without formal religious interest, he made unostentatious contributions to charity and helped a number of young men to get an education. When his fortune had become well assured, he traveled to Europe and Mexico, as well as to various points in the United States. In 1895 and 1896 he studied botany in summer school at Harvard University.
McDonald never married. He died in Paris on February 8, 1926, leaving an estate of over a million dollars, the bulk of which he bequeathed to the University of Texas to establish an observatory. His heirs contested the will, and the university eventually made an out-of-court settlement by which it received $800,000. The University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory at Mount Locke is in the Big Bend area.