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Longtime coroner reflects on tenure

POSTED: December 28, 2012 11:47 p.m.
Autumn Vetter/

Outgoing Forsyth County Coroner Lauren McDonald III works a recent case.

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Lauren McDonald III was a senior in college when a few words from a state lawmaker set the course for his future.

It was Sen. Wayne Garner, now the mayor of Carrolton in west Georgia, who took him to his funeral home. McDonald was working at the state Capitol as part of his scholarship at the University of Georgia.

“When we got there, he toured me around and showed me the funeral home and when we left, he turned to me and said, ‘You’d make a great funeral director,’” McDonald recalled.

“I had no clue what a funeral director was, but I started looking into it … I told my dad and he kind of laughed at me. He thought it was something that was just a short thought as far as actually following through with it.”

It wasn’t a phase. Two weeks after graduating from college, McDonald was enrolled in mortuary school. And following a three-year hiatus to work for the lieutenant governor, McDonald & Son Funeral Home and Crematory opened in 1997.

Using UGA’s small business services center, McDonald had searched for a good location for his business.

“It kept telling me to go to Cumming in Forsyth County … so I started looking and meeting people up here and this is where I’ve built my home and started my family,” he said. “I [had] lived here barely two years, just enough to qualify, when I ran for coroner.”

Having worked on ambulances and as a volunteer firefighter, a job which he continues to hold, McDonald said he was “intrigued by the office” of coroner.

After learning the qualifications, he began his first campaign for the office. During his bid, he enjoyed meeting people throughout the community and has continued to enjoy serving the community for all three of his four-year terms.

“The county’s been good to me,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed being the coroner of Forsyth County for 12 years. But at the same time, I too need a break and am looking forward to the transition.”

McDonald, who did not seek a fourth term this summer and instead ran unsuccessfully for sheriff, will be succeeded by Mary Beth Pais on Jan. 1.

As coroner, McDonald said he’s been the “eyes and ears” to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which doesn’t have the resources to track down information on every death in the state. It’s why coroner records are so important.

During his dozen years in the post, McDonald said he’s seen a lot.

Two of the most notable cases he’s worked were Lynn Turner, found guilty of murdering her husband and boyfriend with antifreeze, and Final Exit Network Inc.

The latter, which stemmed from the 2008 death of a Forsyth County man, involved the issue of assisted suicide.

On a recent call to confirm a suspected suicide, McDonald noted the steady rate of residents ending their lives. Also on the rise in Forsyth, he said, is the use of heroine. He attributed that, in part, to a crackdown on prescription drug abuse.

To McDonald, the most difficult aspect of being coroner is accepting the death of a child, which became increasingly difficult as he welcomed three children of his own since taking the office.

“The children. You never get over that … I’ve cried with families. Not because that’s my job, but because that’s my emotional side. I have a heart,” he said.

A Dec. 10 car wreck that claimed the life of a 17-year-old in north Forsyth was also tragic, according to McDonald.

“The family showed up on the scene and that was tough to sit there and talk to the family and know they just lost their son and he’s 100 yards away from them,” he said. “You have to have a heart to be able to work with these families.”

McDonald’s degree in political science didn’t make him a likely candidate for coroner, but “a lot of the practice of a coroner is common sense.”

“You can have all the medical knowledge in the world, but when you approach a scene, you start from the outside,” he said. “You look at your environment, you look at the conditions. You start putting your case together as you’re pulling up on the scene.”

In addition to being a funeral director, McDonald said his childhood also lent itself to his work as coroner.

“I was probably 6 years old when I saw my first dead body, if not younger,” he said. “My dad was a fire chief and my grandfather before him was an assistant fire chief, so I’d been around it all my life … I learned to drive pretty early too. Dad would get a call in the middle of the night and I’d get up and turn his car around.

“I always wanted to help … that’s what I love to do, helping people.”

That’s also why he ran for sheriff this year. While he said the county chose to go in a different direction, he hasn’t ruled out a future run for office. In the meantime, there are other plans.

“As I sit back and look at what’s next, well I haven’t been on a vacation in a year, so I’d love to take my wife somewhere special … she’s due,” he said. “But I love to work with people and … I love this community and I’m sure down the road if the opportunity arises, I would never say never that I wouldn’t look at running.

“But I will not be running for coroner again. I’ve done 12 years and that’s enough in any man’s life dealing with death on a constant basis. I know that I do in my personal business, but you have to one day find balance.”

 

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