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Mac McGarry, 'It's Academic' host, dies at 87

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Mac McGarry, the avuncular TV quizmaster of “It’s Academic” who spent several decades pitching teenage contestants in Baltimore and Washington fastball trivia questions about topics as diverse as Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Chubby Checker and the chemical makeup of paint, died of pneumonia Thursday at his home in Potomac. He was 87. 

With an easygoing baritone that sounded like a throwback to the days of fedoras and big bands, Mr. McGarry thrived well into the Internet age. As host of “It’s Academic,” which launched in Washington in 1961 and became the longest-running quiz program in TV history, he liked to describe himself as the area’s most inquisitive man.

A Washington radio and TV personality, he carved a multifaceted career spanning six decades. He covered presidential inaugurations and the start of the Korean War. He also hosted a big-band radio show, was an early TV sparring partner of Willard Scott and appeared with a young Jim Henson and his Muppets.

But it was as the bespectacled face of “It’s Academic” that Mr. McGarry became a Saturday staple for generations of Baltimore and Washington brainiacs who competed for scholarship money and intellectual glory. So earnestly does the weekly program take academic achievement that cheerleaders and marching bands became part of the show’s backdrop, rooting on their school’s teams.

Mr. McGarry, the show’s first host, said he believed in the show’s mission to “put these kids out front, where they belong.”

The show’s creator, the late Sophie Altman, started “It’s Academic” on Washington’s NBC affiliate, WRC (Channel 4). She later brought the same format, sometimes under different names, to Baltimore and more than a dozen other markets nationwide.

Mr. McGarry emceed the educational quiz show in Baltimore from 1973 to 2000. The show currently airs on WJZ-TV (Channel 13).

When Mr. McGarry retired from the Washington show in 2011 after 50 years as the host, he told The Baltimore Sun that he would still be involved.

“Maybe I'll write some questions. I'll never separate myself completely from it,” he said.
Executive producer Susan Altman, whose mother founded the show, told The Sun in 2011 that Mr. McGarry came across on TV as the teacher “who really cared about them” and “took pride in their educational achievements.”

“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,” she told The Sun.

“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. 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.”

Former contestants around the nation include former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, mystery writer and Baltimore resident Laura Lippman, political commentator George Stephanopoulos and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon.

Mr. McGarry prepared vigorously for the show by researching pronunciations. He once spent an hour on the phone with the Russian Embassy until he could say a Russian word properly.
On the show, he read questions from cue cards and decided whether teams won or lost points. Three teams of three students from dozens of local high schools competed against each other and the clock.

Typical questions included: “What mythological figure has the whole world on his shoulders?” Answer: “Atlas.”

Mr. McGarry was, for the most part, unflappable in the face of teenage unpredictability. But he lost his usual composure when a student was once asked who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
“Duke Ellington,” the contestant replied.

The noble rank was right, but the American jazz bandleader had little else in common with the Duke of Wellington.

“I tried not to laugh, but I had to hang my head on the rostrum,” Mr. McGarry said.

Maurice James McGarry was born in Atlanta and grew up in New York City, where his father became a real estate analyst for the New York Central Railroad. The younger McGarry graduated from New York’s Regis High School and, in 1947, from Fordham University.

He was working for a radio station in western Massachusetts before a Fordham classmate, celebrated baseball announcer Vin Scully, urged him to apply for a summer announcing job at WRC-TV in 1950.

During his first five years at the NBC affiliate, Mr. McGarry was a general staff announcer, providing voice-overs for all occasions. In 1955, he was cast as the “straight man” to Willard Scott on WRC-TV’s “Afternoon,” a variety show that featured Jim Henson, then a University of Maryland, College Park student.

Hillary Howard, who took over as host of “It’s Academic” in Washington when Mr. McGarry retired, told The Sun in 2011 that it would not be easy following him.

“Longtime viewers will measure me against his impressive standard — forever,” she said. “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 to succeed on the show, in school and in life. They know that, too.”

Mr. McGarry was a communicant of Our Lady of Mercy Roman Catholic Church, 9200 Kentsdale Drive, Potomac, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Thursday.

Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Babette Lohe McGarry of Potomac; four children, Stephen “Mac” McGarry of Bethesda, Laura Lanke of Skillman, N.J., and twins Mark McGarry of Germantown and Andrea Cremins of Ashburn, Va.; two sisters; and six grandchildren. His first wife, Barbara Walter, died in 1955 after two years of marriage.

Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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