June 15, 1926 – Dec. 12, 2013
WASHINGTON – Mac McGarry, the avuncular TV quizmaster of “It’s Academic” who spent a half-century 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, died of pneumonia Dec. 12 at his home in Potomac, Md. He was 87.
With an easy-going baritone that sounded like a throwback to the days of fedoras and big bands, McGarry thrived well into the Internet age. As host of “It’s Academic,” which launched 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 McGarry became a Saturday staple for generations of 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. McGarry, a graduate of academically rigorous Jesuit schools in New York, was the show’s first host. He 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. She later brought the same format, sometimes under different names, to more than a dozen markets nationwide.
Born in Atlanta, Maurice James McGarry grew up in New York City. He was working for a radio station in western Massachusetts before a Fordham classmate, the 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, 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 at College Park student.
Initially the show’s second banana, McGarry won admirers for his singing and for keeping up with Scott’s banter. Show director James Kovach told The Post at the time that McGarry “has a lot more talent than anyone realized.”
Between WRC-TV engagements, McGarry acted as an announcer, host and weatherman for Buffalo’s NBC affiliate of the time, WBUF-TV Channel 17, from 1954 to 1959. While serving in Buffalo, he won the local award for best newscaster of the year. While in the area, he attended was St. Benedict’s Catholic Church in Eggertsville.
McGarry continued hosting variety shows until “It’s Academic” turned up. Although never a ratings leader, the show stayed put in large part because of its long sponsorship by Giant Food. McGarry retired from it in 2011.