Friday, December 13, 2013


When I went to work in 1985 at WRC-TV, Channel 4, the NBC owned station in Washington, DC, it was carrying on 2 remarkable traditions of public service.  One was sponsored.

The one that the station paid for, 2 annual Saturday-before-Christmas parties, one for the children of employees, which included an expensive gift for every child, was in the morning.  In the afternoon a very similar party featured slightly less expensive but still very nice presents for more than 100 children from poor families.  2 years into my reign as Santa Claus, (unforgettable!), a new general manager ended the tradition, saying he had to cut his budget.

The other, even greater tradition, It’s Academic, the longest-running quiz show in television history is still alive and on the air after 52 years.  For most of that time, it had one regular sponsor, the Giant Supermarket chain, and for 50 years, one superlative host and quizmaster, “Mac” McGarry.

Mac died this week, aged 87, as full of honors as he was years and memories.  On the basis of 4 years as a colleague I can say, he was a sweetheart who always had  cheery greeting in the hall or in the newsroom, usually followed by an intelligent comment about something in the news..  His own claim to fame, every bit as unlikely to be challenged, was that he was “the [Washington] area’s most inquisitive man.”

Unlike most Washington inquiries which have the tone (and often the misplaced moral superiority) of an, if not The, inquisition, Mac’s questions on It’s Academic were both gentler and more genuinely curious.  McGarry spent every Saturday morning for 50 years, (except one, when he had a bad cold), as Lauren Wiseman put in his obituary in the Washington Post, “pitching local teenage contestants hundreds of thousands of fastball trivia questions about topics as diverse as Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Chubby Checker and the chemical makeup of paint.” 

The contestants were panels of students representing the whole gamut of DC-area high schools and their mission was two-fold, to answer more questions correctly than the other teams and to demonstrate that smart was beautiful, and fun.

The show, created and brilliantly produced by Sophie Altman and continued today by her daughter Susan, is smart enough to honor the scholars, not just with prizes and congratulations, but with the enduring icons of high school respect and stature: marching bands and cheerleaders in support.

The simple format, and the intellectual integrity of It’s Academic was replicated in a dozen or more markets outside DC, although none of the clones have had close to the lifespan of the original.  Mac had a parallel run in Baltimore on an It’s Academic that lasted 27 years.

Mac’s questions, devised with Sophie in the days before every show, were tough:  Here are 2 examples cited by Wiseman:  “What mythological figure has the whole world on his shoulders?” Answer: “Atlas.”

“If you had been a voter in the 1896 and 1900 presidential elections, your choice of candidates would have been limited to men with what same first name?” Answer: “William,” for McKinley and Bryan.

Although many, like Wiseman, would call the answers “trivia,” a more accurate, less reductive label would be, “general information.”  And the winning teams won, not because they achieved Mr. Memory feats of disconnected recollection, but because they were generally well-informed.

It’s Academic honored, not just the knowledgeable but knowledge itself; and in his back and forth of details demanded and accurately supplied, its host found, as my favorite quotation has it, “delight.”

"Mac McGarry was probably the only game show host in television history who would occasionally burst into song in the middle of the show,” his last It’s Academic Executive Producer Susan Altman told WRC-TV;s Jim Handly. And what you saw on TV was the real Mac McGarry---funny, smart, knowledgeable, and a joy to work with. He set the standard---not just professionally--but as a human being as well.”

I do not just refer to Mac McGarry’s effervescent personality and agile mind, when I say sincerely the old cliché, “We won’t see his like again.”

When Mac began his broadcast career in the late 1940s, quiz shows were a staple of radio, and when It’s Academic began in 1961, it’s genial style, personified by the man asking the questions, it was an honorable contrast to the top-rated high tension, big money, big scandal-scarred network quizzes, The $64,000 Question and Twenty One.

Mac celebrated along with his students the joy of correct answers, not the torture of trying to remember them, nor the piles of cash at stake.  It was a homey, hometown formula that worked.  But It’s Academic was a show of scholarship, and even 28 years ago, McGarry told the Washington Post, it was a “reflection of the way our country was.”

It’s Academic is part of a proud tradition, of pride in intellectual achievement, and although many “preppies” also participated, pride in the achievements of public education.  Although the show lives on, it is an anachronism, because in today’s Washington bullying intellectual bankruptcy triumphs, and the public schools are among the worst in the country. One fears It’s Academic may soon go the way of WRC-TV’s annual pair of Christmas parties.

To close on a more cheerful, and personal note:  Obituaries are wonderful for their “Who knew?” effect.  From the Post obit I learned that Mac McGarry got his job at WRC-TV in 1950 after his Fordham college classmate Vin Scully, the greatest of all baseball announcers, told him to apply. 

This reminds me that Channel 4’s longtime anchor, and my treasured 4-year on-air partner on the 6 and 11 O’Clock News Jim Vance made his application to Channel 4 on the same kind of say so from another of my former co-workers, Vance’s college buddy at Cheney State.  When Ed Bradley told you to do something, you did it.  For Jim and for the station you’d have to say, things have worked out.

For Mac McGarry, Sophie and Susan Altman, and anyone who worked at Channel 4 over the past 52 years; for thousands of high school students in the Washington area, and thousands more in other cities and towns, and for tens of thousands of parents, teachers and fellow students across the country; for anyone who values thought and information, his advice to his classmate stands as one of Vinnie’s finest calls.

Mac and DC and America were made for each other.  Once upon a time, alas.


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