Denis McDonough goes from South Hill to the White House
Although new White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough is still known to many as the ‘dude’ from Stillwater, it’s what they might not know that holds more interest behind the headlines. A family man with a passion for international policy, McDonough maintains close ties to those he loves and his Minnesota roots.
“My brother is a lot like Stillwater,” said the Rev. Kevin McDonough of Saint Peter Claver in St. Paul. “He loved growing up there and he had the privilege of having his family stick close by. He was always involved in sports and community activities. We lived on South Hill at the time and he always participated in activities he loved. He always felt safe and cared for in the community. That’s the way he lived and that’s what he aims to do for the future and with his own children.”
President Obama named 43-year-old Denis McDonough White House Chief of Staff Jan. 25. McDonough is the ninth in a family of 11 children and Kevin McDonough said they grew up closely knit and remain so today.
“We had the privilege of staying connected with our whole family throughout our lives into adulthood and we have great affection for each other.” Kevin McDonough said.
Some of that might come from McDonough’s parents, William and Kathleen McDonough, who made sure to get at least one member of their large family to a portion of every ball game that any of their children ever played. Denis McDonough was an all-conference defensive back on the Ponies football team. He graduated from SAHS in 1988.
Some of Kevin McDonough’s favorite memories of his brother when he was younger are watching his brother at the football games during his junior year in high school. McDonough later played football at St. John’s University in Collegeville under now-retired Coach John Gagliardi and graduated Summa cum laude with a History degree.
Denis McDonough, a Catholic, was very involved in the faith community of St. Michael’s Catholic Church, taking religion classes and participating in other church activities. That faith, according to Obama’s speech Friday, helped Obama navigate and reach out to the Catholic community during his first term.
“Denis is a man of deep faith, and he understand that in the end, our policies and our programs are measured in the concrete differences that they make in the lives of our fellow human beings and in the values that we advance as American’s.” Obama said.
Denis McDonough moved to this chief of staff position from deputy chief of staff position and Kevin McDonough said Denis’ interest in international affairs also was shaped Stillwater.
“Almost all of us (in the family) were involved in the International Affairs Club, which I think really shaped Denis into who he was,” Kevin McDonough said. “International Affairs also had a strong influence in the family home and I know that was a really forming experience for Denis as well. We were active in international conversations as far back as 1970 and continued in those conversations until the family transferred out of Stillwater because of a 3M transfer in 1988.”
Jim Graupner, International Affairs Club advisor during the McDonough’s participation, remembers spending many evenings discussing public affairs in the McDonough’s and other residents’ homes.
The club took several trips to the Model UN and toured East Coast Schools like Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where Denis McDonough eventually earned a Master’s degree in foreign affairs, They talked about a variety of topics and aimed to bring interested people together to discuss policy in the wider world.
“Though Denis was never a student in my classroom, he always struck me as well-informed and willing to be involved,” said Graupner, a now-retired Stillwater School District teacher. “I think it was natural for him to be involved because his parents were always interested in talking with us when we were at their house. It wasn’t a surprise to me when I noticed a number of them were in Washington.”
Graupner and Denis McDonough’s paths crossed in 2001 after McDonough had worked with South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle and Graupner served as the President of the Minnesota Debate Teachers Association. Graupner was gathering information about weapons of mass destruction to post on the association’s website. He had gone to Washington to interview aschle, but Daschle had him talk to Denis McDonough instead.
“It was very good and he was very knowledgable and I know that he was careful since he knew it was an interview and would be published, but it did give me some insight into the political world of the Washington mindset as how the issue would be handled in Washington,” Graupner said.
Despite the Washington mindset, Graupner says McDonough’s “Minnesota nice” attitude was evident.
“I know that Denis helped many people when they visited Washington; getting tickets to the Senate and House of Representatives when he could and he would take people around.” Graupner said.
Both Graupner and Kevin McDonough were not surprised when Denis McDonough was named White House Chief of Staff.
“You know, I’ve always known that he was a tremendous talent and I knew that whatever he’d do, he’d do extremely well. He worked hard and did everything he did with hard work and dedication,” Kevin McDonough said. “You’ve probably seen the press release from President Obama that most people picked up on: ‘no one out-works Denis McDonough.’ I never doubted he’d do less than his best in whatever he chose to pursue.”