Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Family Style: Mayor John McDonald sets out to affirm, enrich Penbrook’s sense of small-town community.

For Penbrook Mayor John McDonald, work and family are inseparable.

Since taking office last year, McDonald, a father of three, said his greatest goal as mayor is maintaining a sense of family within this small community of about 3,000 residents just outside of Harrisburg.

“I would love to see this continue to be a big family-oriented borough.” McDonald said recently.

McDonald, 35, is the first African American to serve as mayor since Penbrook was incorporated as a borough in 1894. Although McDonald said he’s honored to carry this distinction, he also believes that race is incidental to serving in the post.

“Really, I’m just another person in the job,” he said with a shrug.

Most likely, former Penbrook mayor PeggyAnne Miller would dispute McDonald’s modest assessment of his public service. When a move to Lower Paxton Township caused Miller to resign as mayor last year, she quickly recommended McDonald, then a Penbrook councilman, as her replacement.

“John has a young family in the borough, and he’s done a lot of work with our summer programs. He’s very interested in our kids and our parks and getting our community involved in things,” Miller explained. “He just is very involved with the borough and is a very dedicated person.”

McDonald was appointed as mayor by the Penbrook Borough Council last June to fill the remainder of Miller’s term, which expires in December 2021. He now plans to run for an elected term as mayor in 2021, which is fine with his friend David Deardorff.

“I wish John continues as mayor and stays mayor for a very long time,” said Deardorff, a 14-year borough council veteran. “John’s real good here serving on the borough. He’s gotten a whole lot of nonpartisans to come out and help. This borough has become more family-oriented under his leadership. I like his community involvement, I love his personality, and I love his family.”

McDonald grew up in Oberlin and graduated from Central Dauphin East High School in 2002 before settling in Penbrook 11 years ago with wife Brenda. Daughter Mykenzie, 18, graduates from CD East in June, while sons John III, 8, and Dwayne, 5, attend Southside Elementary School.

Ten years ago, McDonald began his career as a corrections officer at the Dauphin County prison after earning degrees in criminal justice from Thompson Institute and Lockhaven University.

“I felt it was the best way to help people,” McDonald said, explaining why he pursued a career in that field. “It was the best way to bridge people. I’m a people person by heart.”

McDonald first decided to run for borough councilman four years ago “because it was something different. I wanted to see how the political side works.”

He was further encouraged to run for the post by a coworker, Ken Cramer, who also happened to serve on borough council at the time.

As it turned out, McDonald learned “a whole lot” during his tenure.

“Being able to cover a small government’s budget is mind-blowing,” he recalled. “Then learning about all ordinances we have throughout the state and rewording those to match our community.”

As mayor, he said that his greatest responsibility is keeping the community safe.

“We don’t have a whole lot of crime here,” McDonald said. “But I don’t want us to become too complacent about it, either.”

In fact, McDonald’s experience in the criminal justice field was a major reason that Miller recommended him for mayor.

“I’m really happy, and I think the police officers and chief are as happy with him as mayor, too,” she said.

Since becoming mayor, McDonald may be most proud of December’s grand re-opening of the newly renovated Elm Street Station Park. He spent months working with a borough parks subcommittee overseeing the project’s fine points, which involved the installation of new landscaping, children’s playground amenities, picnic and game tables and an adult exercise area with benches.

This project was a perfect fit for the family atmosphere that McDonald is working to foster in the borough.

“I love the fact that we’re a small borough and family-oriented,” McDonald said. “I believe it’s a great place to raise my children.”

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