John McDonald has spent much of his life telling stories that make people laugh, helping them feel better about their daily struggles. Now he could use a little help himself.

McDonald, 77, had heart surgery in March and has been in declining health since, family members say. The Maine storyteller, writer and longtime radio host on WGAN in Portland broke several vertebrae in a bad fall last week. He’s also been dealing with memory loss.

His children launched a campaign on this week to raise $50,000 to help pay for the home nursing care McDonald needs and possible memory care as well, said his son Jeremiah McDonald. Like so many Mainers, McDonald cobbled together his living by doing a number of things over the years – writing books and newspaper columns, hosting a weekend radio show, performing – and is now relying on Medicare to pay for health expenses, but it doesn’t cover everything he needs, his son said.

McDonald, speaking from the New England Rehabilitation Hospital of Portland on Friday, played down his troubles – something friends say he always does – and instead simply said he felt lucky to have his three grown children and his wife, Ann, looking out for him. He said despite the tough year he’s had, he may try at some point to write a story about it.

“John has been a very important voice for Maine storytelling, somebody who kept the tradition going when it was fading and was true to the form,” said Dean Lunt, editor-in-chief of Islandport Press in Yarmouth, which has published three of McDonald’s books. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for his importance.”

Jeremiah McDonald said his father had been dealing with health problems since last year, including memory loss and having trouble walking around. The heart valve surgery in March was partly to see if his circulation and mobility could be improved, but it wasn’t. McDonald’s son said his father was left weakened after the surgery and has needed a walker or a wheelchair to get around his South Portland home.

A fundraising campaign has been set up to help pay for the health care expenses of John McDonald, celebrated Maine storyteller and longtime Portland radio host. Photo courtesy of Islandport Press

On Sept. 17, McDonald had a bad fall while walking from his bedroom to the bathroom, fracturing vertebrae and sustaining bad bruises. Jeremiah McDonald said he decided to start the GoFundMe campaign because his mother and father were not likely to ask for help on their own, even though the care McDonald requires now is beyond their means and abilities. McDonald is expected to be released from the hospital next week. His three children live out of state.

McDonald’s 2002 collection of columns and stories “A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar…” is one of the biggest-selling Maine humor books ever, with more than 35,000 copies sold, Lunt said. McDonald has performed with other well-known Maine storytellers and humorists over the years, including Marshall Dodge and Kendall Morse. His popularity led a Maine travel agency to organize cruises to Europe and other destinations, with McDonald as the entertainment and main attraction, Lunt said.

John McDonald’s “A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar…” is one of the best selling Maine humor books. Photo courtesy of Islandport Press

McDonald also gained a loyal following for his weekly radio show on WGAN, a news and talk station. McDonald hosted shows on Saturday and Sunday mornings for 25 years before being fired in April 2020. Station officials who were in charge at the time would not publicly say why McDonald was dismissed. But McDonald said he had taken a “hiatus” from his show in March 2020 as the pandemic started, partly because he was concerned about coming into the studio while COVID-19 cases were sky-rocketing. When he went to discuss the future of his show with officials at Portland Radio Group, which includes WGAN, he said he was told the hiatus would be made permanent.

Phil Zachary, market president of the Portland Radio Group, on Friday praised McDonald’s longevity and skills. Zachary was not with Portland Radio Group when McDonald was dismissed. In an email to the Press Herald, Zachary said there are three things that can be said of anyone who lasts in media as long as McDonald did – “they’re perpetually curious, they’re willing to embrace inevitable change and they’re riveting storytellers. John McDonald checks all those boxes.”

Crash Barry, a Maine writer who worked with McDonald at WGAN in the 1990s, said McDonald’s strengths as a radio host include his skills as a listener and his everyman approach to the news of the day.

“He’d listen to everybody who called in. He’d give them time to talk, without judging them,” said Barry. “He’s such a fun person, and he loved to talk and listen to people. That’s why people loved listening to his show.”

Lunt said Islandport Press is planning to release a new book by McDonald and Marion Fearing, called “What’s in a Name,” by Christmas. The book is a mix of research on the origin of Maine place names, along with humor and stories about the places. The book’s release has been delayed, first by the pandemic and by McDonald’s health, but is now set for release. Lunt said he is also planning to do some sort of fundraiser to help McDonald, tied to the sale of his books, though he’s not sure yet what the specifics will be.

Barry said McDonald was always willing to help charities and causes over the years, by letting people talk about their fundraisers on the radio.

“So I’m hoping now there’s going to be some payback,” Barry said.

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