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Ed Donahue, Controller, 1999–2022

By Heidi Vanderbilt-Brown
Chief Financial and Operating Officer

Last week, Ed Donahue dared me to start this encomium—which represents his 23 years here at Milton as the school’s Controller—with two truths and a lie. “It will be funny…” he said, “and far more interesting to me than the other retirement speeches you’ve already given about me. Everyone else hasn’t heard your other speeches, but I have, and I will know when you are repeating yourself.”

If that isn’t characteristic of Ed, I don’t know what is. Blunt as can be but always with a twist of humor… Even if he’s delivering bad news, it at least comes with a joke. And if he can’t think of a good joke for the moment, or if he has something to say that he thinks you might take personally, he’ll end his comment with “but it was said from the heart.”

At the same time, numbers are serious business, especially at a school like ours. As a not for profit, we must spend every penny in a way that supports our mission, but not more than that. To that end, Ed knows every single one of the school’s more than 200 endowment funds and how they need to be spent to meet a donor’s requirements. Ed also has a 6th sense if things are not heading in a great direction with our budget. He can tell you the spread between gas prices at the pump in three different nearby towns, and use that to pinpoint utility trends for Milton Academy. More broadly, he thinks about what challenges could be coming to Milton and puts options on the table for us to debate, so that we can be prepared.

Yes, Ed has marvelously headed our finances for the past 23 years. But the key to his success is that he does not see himself as just an accountant or a forecaster. Those roles are reactive, and that’s not Ed at all —he is a person of action. He’s always encouraging dialogue, asking his colleagues and team, “how can we make this happen despite what’s going on”? Or in Ed lingo, “I’ll be moving some things around.” While budget managers may not be quite clear on how it happened—as Ed takes great pride in being the Wizard of the Business Office—all of a sudden departments find that money appears so they can buy that thing they didn’t think they’d have. For many of us, the resources we need to do our job are there without our having to ask.

Over time, Ed’s actions and partnership with the business office team has ensured that resources have been distributed as fairly as possible. Ed is always asking, if we take action X, how will it impact students and families who come to the school with vastly different resources? Will this feel right to both faculty and staff? Is what each division has to spend proportionally correct? Across Upper School boarding and day?

Ed has not been following a written policy all these years. Rather, he has been following his own north star, which is respect. Respect is the one thing that matters to Ed above all else. Respect for one another as fellow human beings, that we treat each other with care. Respect for the role that everyone plays in fulfilling the school’s mission, no matter what job they do on campus. Respect for the business and operational processes in place so that we can—in good conscience—say that Milton Academy has done everything possible to provide every opportunity to our students. Everything possible to treat each person in this community as they would wish to be treated.

Ed has brought humanity to a role that is usually perceived as unidimensional. And so while I could repeat a huge, long list of all the things that Ed has accomplished while at Milton—from accounting to
budgeting to cash to debt management to clean audit and tax filings, plus generating innumerable ideas about how we could make it financially through COVID… I know that Ed would rather that we all take a moment and identify one specific action we each can take now to make others at Milton feel respected.

Pay it forward. That, more than anything else, is the legacy that Ed seeks and deserves.

What’s the Big Idea?

As Robert F. Kennedy ’44 observed, the best ideas—the most daring, and those that make the most profound impact on our world—spring from the minds of people who are unafraid to ask “Why not?” This issue highlights Milton graduates whose ideas are limitless, who challenge outdated assumptions, and who champion new approaches to old problems. On campus, students and teachers celebrate not only thinking but rethinking, and the powerful good that can be achieved when minds are nurtured, compassionate, and free.