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James V. ‘Capt’n Jim’ McMahan Jr., retired radio executive, former member of Harford County Council and community activist, dies

James McMahan's public service and community activism in Harford County spanned decades.
James McMahan's public service and community activism in Harford County spanned decades. (Handout / HANDOUT)

James V. “Capt’n Jim” McMahan Jr., a retired radio executive and a former member of the Harford County Council who was named a Harford County Living Treasure, died April 14 from liver cancer at his companion’s White Hall home. The lifelong Bel Air resident was 82.

“It’s very sad because he was just nothing but Harford County through and through, a great historian, great advocate for all of our public servants, all of our first responders, all of our veterans and schools,” said Patrick Vincenti, president of the Harford County Council.

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“He loved being born, raised and educated in Harford County,” Mr. Vincenti said. “If you could envision the ultimate radio personality, that was him. He was colorful, animated, a wealth of local knowledge.”

“Jim did a lot of good for a lot of people, and that’s the truth,” said Todd Holden, a former Aegis reporter and photographer. “When people came to him about something that needed fixing, he’d promote it. He was on the Harford County Council and did a lot of things for veterans.”

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Charlsie Brooks has known Mr. McMahan since they were in the first grade.

“With Jim’s death it’s like a light has gone out,” said Ms. Brooks. “He’s done so much and given so much over the years and was the kind of person if he saw a problem, he’d fix it.”

James Vaughn McMahan Jr., son of J. Vaughan McMahan Sr., Bel Air’s police chief for 37 years, and his wife, Selena Pickett McMahan, a Bel Air High School biology teacher, was born in Baltimore and raised in Bel Air.

After gradating from Bel Air High School in 1956, Mr. McMahan entered what was then Western Maryland College, now McDaniel College, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1960.

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At college he was in the ROTC and after graduation was commissioned a lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps. He was attending the University of Baltimore Law School when he was called to active duty in 1961.

He served with the 128th Signal Company and the 972nd Signal Battalion and then served for 31 years on active duty with the Army Reserves, attaining the rank of colonel. He was awarded the Army Commendation Medal, the Department of the Army Commanding General’s Medal for Public Service, the Maryland Meritorious Service Medal, and the French National Defense Medal, Gold Echelon.

Since 2004, Mr. McMahan was the Commander of Midshipmen at the Naval Academy for the annual French Monument Ceremony honoring the French soldiers who gave their lives during the Revolutionary War.

In 2018, Maj. Gen. Randy Taylor, senior commander of the Aberdeen Proving Ground, presented Mr. McMahan with the Army Public Service Commendation Medal and “Soldier for Life” designation.

“He loved his country and wanted to be remembered as a patriot,” said his daughter, the Rev. Betsy Diann McMahan of Bel Air.

Mr. McMahan worked as a radio and television reporter and sold insurance. His infatuation with broadcasting went back to his high school days when the legendary Ernie Harwell, the voice of the Orioles, who later became the longtime voice of the Detroit Tigers, spoke at the Bel Air American Legion Hall.

Mr. Harwell offered tips for Mr. McMahan, who was the public address announcer at his school’s football games, and then invited him to attended a football game with another veteran legendary sports voice, Chuck Thompson.

“That was the highlight of the beginning of my career,” Mr. McMahan explained in a 1985 Baltimore Sun interview.

After working at WTTR in Westminster and at WBAL in Baltimore, Mr. McMahan became general manager in 1969 of WVOB-AM in Bel Air.

In 1970, Robert I. Callahan, whom he had known when they worked together in radio and television at WBAL, joined WVOB, and the two friends launched and hosted the “Bob and Jim in the Morning” drive-time radio show.

In 1978, Mr. McMahan and Mr. Callahan along with a group on investors purchased WAMD-AM in Aberdeen, and continued their morning show at the new station.

“Neither of us were stars, but the audience was,” Mr. McMahan told The Sun for his friend’s obituary in 2014.

“Our show that aired from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. was an open-phone show where we took calls from the audience, and that’s how we made them stars. Bob was a master interviewer, and when someone called in about a lost dog or cows in the road, he could get 10 minutes out of it,” he said. “Bob was incredible. He could see a one-liner coming form half a mile away.”

The two partners, who woke up Harford Countians for 26 years, never had a script or a delay system, and created a cast of callers with names like “Birdman,” “Jimmy the Danish,” “Dr. Dick, the Mayor of Churchville,” and “Slick Gleason, his chief of police.”

It was Mr. Callahan who gave Mr. McMahan the moniker “Capt’n Jim.”

When Mr. Holden worked at Richardson’s Florists in Bel Air, Mr. McMahan worked there as well as a deliveryman. “My job was potting poinsettias, and he gave me the name ‘Potter,’ and called me that for years,” Mr. Holden said.

One morning Mr. Holden was listening to the “Bob and Jim Show” as they were discussing a bird.

“Now, this was live radio and very funny. I knew they were calling the bird the wrong name so I called. The next thing I heard was, ‘We have a caller on the line, Birdman.’ Thereafter I became a regular for 14 years or so,” said Mr. Holden, who picked up a second nickname, “Birdman,” and the name stuck. “Whenever I saw Jim he’d call me ‘Birdman’ or ‘Potter.’ ”

Mr. Holden said WAMD’s format was geared strictly toward local news.

“If someone prominent had died, Jim would come on the air and say, ‘We have some bad news today; so-and-so has died,’ and he’d do a radio obit. It was local news that made the station hum, and was so innovative, back at a time when Harford County wasn’t what it is today.”

Mr. McMahan retired from the radio station in 2003.

His public service and community activism in Harford County spanned decades. A Republican, he was elected in 2003 to serve a three-year term on the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners and in 2014 was elected to the Harford County Council, where he was vice president.

During the 1960s, he worked with Bel Air’s Main Street merchants to get overhead power lines and poles removed to enhance and modernize the street. He was one of the founders of the Bel Air Fourth of July Parade, was a co-founder of the Bel Air Community Band and a founder, director and emcee for the Bel Air Community Chorus.

Mr. McMahan was president of the Bel Air Chamber of Commerce, was a founder and president of the Ripken Museum in Aberdeen, and a life member of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Co. and a sworn officer of the Bel Air Police Department.

An outspoken advocate for veterans, he restructured the Harford County Veterans Affairs Commission and established the annual Veterans’ Fair.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman is sending legislation to the County Council renaming the Harford County Veterans Affairs Commission the James V. “Capt’n Jim” McMahan Commission.

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And in honor of Mr. McMahan’s service to his community and county, Mr. Glassman has ordered Harford County flags flown at half-staff from sunrise April 30 through sunset May 2.

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The Maryland State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution named him Outstanding Veteran Volunteer in 2019, and in 2021 he was recognized as a Harford County Living Treasure.

“He had no hobbies — the county was his hobby,” his daughter said.

He was a longtime member of Bel Air United Methodist Church, 21 Linwood Ave., where a memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. May 1. All CDC directives regarding the wearing of masks and social distancing will be observed.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a son, James V. McMahan III of Bel Air; a stepson, Sean Edmund Coffey of Knoxville, Tennessee; a sister, Pauline P. Tyndall of Absecon, New Jersey; his companion, Patricia Welk Wolf of White Hall; and two grandchildren. Earlier marriages to the former Virginia Valos and Mary Ann Kincaid ended in divorce.

Baltimore Sun Media reporter James Whitlow contributed to this article.

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