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Walter F. McMahon

Memorial Tribute

Such a special person as Walt McMahon needs a few words, which we'd like to share some with you. And we'd like to start with a question.

What happened to August?

This phrase might seem the lament of every teacher and school kid this time of year, 'What happened to August?' But it had a special meaning for Walter McMahon.

See back after the War in 1946, Dad and a bunch of buddies got out of service about the same time. And before September came and they were all to go their ways across the country to continue their lives, they spent the month of August celebrating.

So much so that forever after, that phrase "What happened to August?" was the greeting among that group, sort of a secret code recalling an idyllic time of fun right in the middle of very real life.

What happened to August?

Sixty years ago it might have been impossible to predict where Walter's life would take him from that August to this one. To the historian Dad might seem the classic American evolution of his generation: grandson of a gentleman farmer and a railroad foreman, son of a small town businessman, he served in the Navy during the War, went to college and got a masters in history and a teaching certificate on the GI bill, and had a successful career in the public sector as a teacher in suburbia with a loving wife and 5 children. Who were all way above average!

Walter McMahon
Walter McMahon

Of course, as Walter the historian would explain, history is more than broad sweeps. Sometimes history is better understood as biography, because it is personal. And our Dad was nobody's standard issue specimen. He was an original.

What's funny is that in Dad's senior high school yearbook, his classmates captured Dad and his individualism with incredible prescience: The author (which we really have no reason to believe was Dad) wrote:

"Mac" was not behind the door, when brains were given out, as his report attests. He amazes the multitude with his knowledge of airplanes - there is a reason -- he expects to be a pilot. In the group discussions at the Hill he was a leader. There was never a gripe out of Walt - he was the perfect gentleman always.

And that's the real opening chapter of Walt McMahon. Dad's life was a story of making his own choices and his own way in the world, not following others' directions for him.

See, he could have stayed in Crestline, run his father's restaurant, run the jewelry store he worked in, been the high school quarterback his senior year, or had a bevy of older sisters plot his life for him. But he didn't want anyone making those choices for him. So in his senior year of high school he went to the Benedictines at St. Vincent's Prep school in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Dad could have aimlessly bounced through school during the War as a would-be engineer waiting, as he said, to become cannon fodder. Instead, he knew the best way to realize his dream of being a pilot was to enlist. He enlisted and was accepted into the Navy Air Corps, where he blossomed. Athletically and intellectually blossomed.

Walt McMahon
(He also had a little luck in the Navy. He once landed a plane upside down and backwards and not only lived to tell about it. He got promoted for it. More lucky still, thankfully for us all, the War ended when he was on his way to the Pacific.)

Later, Dad could have continued successfully selling insurance or working any one of the other jobs he had to provide for his family, but his calling was teaching.

Later, he and Mom could have stayed in Crestline, but instead struck out for suburban Cleveland, for here, to make a new life for each other and for us.

Dad's life was anything but a straight path. He was many things. He began working in 4th grade and on into high school as, what he called, a box breaker in a jewelry store (which always suggested to me a lot of jewelry was being sold in Crestline).

He was at other times a short order cook, a waiter, the operator of the turntable at the railroad roundhouse, a house painter and handyman, an engineering student, a navy pilot, government investigator "G-Man", an insurance salesman, a teacher par excellence, a treasurer of a credit union and more.

He was also a furniture refinisher and cainer of chairs; an offensive guard under the legendary Coach Hudson; the self-taught home electrician and mason and wood-butchering carpenter. He was an Eagle Scout.

He was the late bloomer who, by his later admission, never really learned to read until the 9th grade and then who spent the next years voraciously consuming books, making up for lost time.

He had a brilliant mind and a calling to be a teacher. And teach he did. In some years he taught 4 nights a week in addition to the full day at Beachwood High School. He taught thousands of students at Ontario and then Beachwood and Tri-C and John Carroll and here in CCD classes at St. Wenceslas; Mom used to jokingly complain that they couldn't go anywhere without running into former students. That included New York City and London.

Though he favored social studies, at times he taught math and English; to the annoyance and lasting edification of his social studies students he corrected their grammar. He was a Jennings scholar who developed new curricula in psychology and sociology and the humanities.

His coaching put Beachwood high school on the map with the national success of the Model UN and JCWA program. It is fitting that Beachwood honors its top student with the Walter F. McMahon Achievement Award.

Walt McMahon teaching

If you have seen just some of the pictures we have around of Dad in the classroom, you can get a sense of what a dynamic teacher he was. To watch him without notes lead students in his AP European history class was to watch a master.

And still, he was more

As a teacher of teachers, both formally and informally, he had no parallel. He valued a substantive understanding of subject matter over a mere methodology, and he knew from experience that it took three years in the classroom to make a teacher, no matter what the theorists said. He really had little patience for theories that came from behind desks and avoided the personal and intellectual engagement that is the essence teaching. (It's because of that that we grew up understanding the word "Administrator" to be a dirty word, for that was how it was used in our house.)

In teaching a generation of teachers - and raising two children who have become excellent teachers-- he made an enduring contribution.

Dad's passion made him an excellent teacher. He was intellectually passionate. He was emotionally passionate. He was a ham. He could be stubborn, which to him was as much a resolute passion for truth than any expression of ego. Because he was also not afraid to admit he was wrong, and he was not afraid to cry.

But he really was a great bear of a man with remarkably large and strong paws of hands to match. Even last week he could grip your hands and make them hurt when he enveloped them and squeezed. His bear-like qualities were fitting, since the name McMahon means "Son of Bear" And he wasn't always quiet. When he wanted to, Dad could thunder and roar like a son of a bear.

We can remember hearing his voice holding forth above all others during vigorous debates among mom and dad's friends during dinner parties. We all know that the most important part of driving a stick shift car is to push in the "CLUTCH!!!"

He could scare the daylights out of unsuspecting students at Beachwood High School with a frantic dash as Santa Claus and bellowing "Merry Christmas," throwing candy into classrooms in the middle of exams before winter break. We all remember when he "jumped to Pittsburgh" when Frank Pitts dropped the ball against the Steelers. Dad leaped across the living room in a single bound, ending up on his knees and pleading "Why, why?"

Even the time Dad got thrown out of the 7th grade CYO basketball game for yelling at the ref in support of the St. Wenceslas Monarchs. The more amazing thing was that Hugh, his youngest, was in 8th grade and his team wasn't even playing yet! Dad simply could never quietly abide any umpire or referee misapplying the rules (whether Dad quite knew the rules or not.).

Such was Dad's passion that it often came so intensely, but generally not to be confused with anger. Much more often, given his joyful nature, his passion bubbled out in laughter.

Dad had an all-time great laugh. Uncontrollable ripples of high pitched laughter followed by belly laughs with snorts. Tears in the eyes laughing.

It didn't take much to set him off, either: a Hogan's Heroes rerun; the Beverly Hillbillies, the Three Stooges, the Coyote just missing the Road Runner and going over the cliff; some excruciating pun.

Or the all time laugh riot: watching Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit, which was the McMahon family vacation that year. Dad laughed even during the mushy love scenes, entertaining the entire audience in the theater.

As a father, he was much more than passionate. He was gentle. He was a man of integrity and principles and a deep faith in Christ. He taught us by example how to be parents and servants by putting others before ourselves. More than anything, he taught us how to love through the love and devotion that he and our mother shared with each other, and with us.

Walt and Pat McMahon
Walt and Pat McMahon

There is no understanding the measure of Walter McMahon without understanding how Patricia Ann Meyers McMahon was his life and his love, the rudder that kept him going straight. Theirs was a wonderful romance, through personal tragedies and joys great and small. She was his soulmate.

When Mom died 13 years ago, Dad lost the biggest part of himself, the touchstone and the sounding board that kept him focused in life. Over time he turned more to Hugh, then his housemate, and turned ever more strongly to his faith. He attended Mass here daily and even started serving Mass again.

In the last few years, he thundered less and his kind and gentlemanly nature came to the fore. Though it wasn't his choice, his advancing years and perhaps depression or dementia purged him of the anxiety of carrying his daily burdens and having to make choices. Where medical science was unhelpful to him, he was nourished by Hugh and Megan when they were newlywed, making their home around him, and by Rita and all of us taking burdens away from him.

People speak of being stuck in happy or stuck in crabby when advanced years or dementia take over. Dad not only was stuck in happy, he exuded kindness. He remained always the polite gentleman, even to the end. When speech would fail him the kindness and love in his eyes shone even more fervently.

And he saved his most special smiles for his grandchildren, Erin and Maggie and Maeve and Niall and Sheila and Patrick and Jamie and Mackensie.

Poem from Sheila McMahon

One indelible example of the kindness that flowed to and from Dad in his last years We moved Dad to the Dolan Center at Heather Hill for specialized care with his dementia. I'll remember my second visit there. And we were a little worried about how he was adjusting.

A woman resident suffering from her dementia was frightened and crying because she didn't remember where she was. She came near Dad and I and I watched Dad to see how he would react. Dad stood up and turned to her. And he took her face in his big gentle hands and he said to her gently and clearly that "It's all right. They'll take care of you here. Don't worry." Then, after she left, in his self-effacing way, he sat back down and rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders.

Dad just simply was a beacon to and from which kindness flowed. Always the polite gentleman, never a gripe out of Walt.

We were blessed to share prayers with him until the end, the same prayers he led us in as children. He knew we loved him and he also knew his love and his faith had made his family a loving family in Christ.

Deacon Terrion explained how the Good Lord defeated not just sin and death, but also time. So we look at the question again, "What happened to August?"

This August, there's only this vision: after a faith-filled life well-lived, Dad is now with Mom and our brothers Patrick and James and so many other wonderful souls, enjoying the greatest party he's ever imagined.

Dad has an eternal August.

This August we say goodbye to our beloved father, our friend and our brother in Christ. He was his own man, and he was a very very very good man. Let us thank God for the blessing that is Walter McMahon. And let us pray for God's grace to live lives as worthy and as full and as true.

By Lou McMahon - August 13, 2005



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