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Mac McGarry steps down after 50 years as host of 'It's Academic'

The quiz show has a long history in the Baltimore and Washington areas

By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

7:13 PM EDT, November 3, 2011

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After 50 years as host of "It's Academic," the longest-running quiz show on television, Mac McGarry, the longest-tenured host, says that "it's really time" to step down.

"I'm 85 years old and gone way beyond Social Security," the Potomac resident said Thursday. "A lot of things are getting to me like this sinus trouble. Right now my eyes are watering, and I thought, 'My gosh, would I be able to read the cards?' Generally speaking, I'm in good health, but these minor things make you realize you might be losing a step here or there."

"It's Academic" debuted in 1961 in Washington and 1971 in Baltimore, but it is a throwback to the earliest days of television right after World War II. The Washington-based show featuring McGarry as quizmaster and pitting top students from area high schools against one another as a test of their knowledge is a reminder of the educational aspirations once held by local TV stations.

McGarry was the perfect embodiment of the best high school memories for several generations of area viewers, according to executive producer Susan Altman.

He came across on TV as the teacher "who really cared about them" and "took pride in their educational achievements," Altman said in explaining McGarry's long and successful run. And that "really was the person," not just a TV persona, she added.

"On the one hand, to be successful, 'It's Academic' has to stay current, because you're dealing with high school kids who are always on the cutting edge of all the new developments coming down," says Altman, whose mother, Sophie, founded the show.

"But at the same time, your audience also wants that feeling of high school as it should have been with pep rallies and friendship — the good nostalgia of high school," she explains. "And Mac, in a funny way, would bridge that gap, because it was clear to kids that he truly liked them — that he wanted them to do well. It was more than just a show."

Hillary Howard, who will take over as host of the show, says she knows it's not easy following someone like McGarry.

"Longtime viewers will measure me against his impressive standard — forever," the afternoon anchorwoman on all-news radio station WTOP says. "Mac is genuine. He's warm, funny, authoritative, smart and very generous. Any 'It's Academic' viewer knows it. And he cares about the kids. Mac wants each of them succeed on the show, in school and in life. They know that, too."

McGarry had cut back on his workload in recent years, hosting only the original production, which is taped in Washington and shown only in that market. He says he stopped doing the Baltimore edition, which airs Saturday mornings on WJZ-TV, 10 years ago when the dual duties became too much.

While the format of 'It's Academic' has been duplicated in many cities, McGarry's longevity goes unmatched.

And while he has passed the hosting baton to Howard, McGarry says he's not totally walking away from the show.

"I'll certainly stay involved with 'It's Academic' to the best that I can," he said. "Maybe I'll write some questions. I'll never separate myself completely from it. But I'll be busy. I have four children and six grandchildren. And when you have a big family, and you get involved in their lives, it's very comforting and it gives you a lot of things to do."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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