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A Leader During a Time of Fear and Crisis

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Brother Donald C. McCleary was an award winning attorney and activist with a commitment to equality.

b. 1956 - d. 1996

Past Grand President and Order of the Golden Heart recipient, Donald C. McCleary, received his bachelor's degree from the University of Texas in 1971 and his law degree from St. Mary's University in San Antonio in 1974. Brother McCleary served as a Regional Director for Sigma Phi Epsilon after graduating from the University of Texas and went on to serve as Chapter Counselor, Alumni Board President, and District Governor.

Brother McCleary became a partner at Dallas law firm Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP in 1976 and five years later, in 1981, was elected to Sigma Phi Epsilon's National Board of Directors. At the 40th Grand Chapter Conclave in 1987 Brother McCleary was elected Grand President, serving from 1987 to 1989. Around this time, McCleary helped found the Human Rights Campaign’s Federal Club, the major donor program that funds a significant portion of the organization’s lobbying, organizing, campaign, and public education work for lesbian and gay equal rights and health issues

In 1991, McCleary joined HRC's board of directors, going on to serve as co-chair. McCleary would bring the same passion for equality to Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP as managing partner from 1991 through 1995 where his leadership propelled Gardere into local, state, and national public affairs, humanitarian activities, and pro bono work. To broaden the talent base at the firm, McCleary instituted a progressive cultural diversity program, including an aggressive push to hire minorities and women. He established many of the community outreach programs that have become the hallmark of the Firm to this day, including the Annual Gardere MLK Jr. Oratory Competition.

In 1995 Brother McCleary was presented with the Kuchling Humanitarian Award, named in honor of the late Raymond Kuchling, a leading activist in Dallas’ LGBT community in the 1980s. That same year, Governor Ann Richards and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk awarded McCleary the Anti-Defamation League's Jurisprudence Award for his support of cultural diversity. Brother McCleary remarked in his speech:

We always struggle between diversity and dogmatism, between tolerance and tyranny, between understanding and narrow ideology. Each of us must contribute to the creation of a society in which the individual's dignity is preserved.

Brother McCleary died of complications associated with AIDS at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas on April 14, 1996. He was 47 years old. At the time of his death, the HRC Executive Director, Elizabeth Birch stated:

America has lost a champion of basic fairness and common decency. Don worked tirelessly so that one day, all Americans will enjoy full equal rights, freedom from discrimination, and the unconditional love of their families… we owe it to his memory to continue his work.

In August of 1999, three years after Brother McCleary's passing and twelve years after he had been elected Grand President, the 46th Grand Chapter Conclave voted to add sexual orientation to SigEp’s non-discrimination clause in the Grand Chapter Bylaws.

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