- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The announcement Wednesday that Mac McGarry is retiring from “It’s Academic” ends his reign as the host of the longest-running TV quiz show in history.

But that record will stand as a mere historical footnote to generations of Washingtonians who more likely will remember him as the exuberantly studious host of the Saturday morning show for the past 50 years.

“I’ve been in the business for 60 years and I feel like I never worked a day,” Mr. McGarry said. “This is stuff you’d do for fun. I’ve enjoyed being on the air, but it’s time.”

Whether it was the high school spirit bands or cheerleaders kicking off the live show under the glaring lights of the WRC-TV studio on Nebraska Avenue Northwest, many seem to have a special memory of the show, which pits area high school teams against one another in answering challenging questions.

“I remember him kind of walking by the booth and talking with us for a few seconds, mostly to calm us down a bit,” said former contestant Dave Goodrich and current adviser for Rockville High School’s “It’s Academic” club. “Every time, he always comes out and for starters works the crowd. Then he will come and talk to each of the teams. He’s very smooth, but he’s also kind. He realizes, ‘OK, I’m dealing with nine pretty wound-up kids and not a few wound-up coaches.’ “

Although he has asked more than 200,000 questions, there are still a few answers that stick out for Mr. McGarry.

“One time I asked who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. The kid paused and said, ‘Duke Ellington,’ ” he recalled.

The retirement announcement was made on the show’s Facebook page, several weeks after a posting that Mr. McGarry, 85, was battling a bad cold and WTOP radio news anchor Hillary Howard would step in as the alternate.

“The general feeling is that Mac was his own person,” producer Susan Altman said. “People say Hillary is not Mac. But she’s her own person.”

Ms. Altman has known Mr. McGarry since she was a child. Her mother, the late Sophie Altman, developed the show in the 1950s.

“He was the kind of host that would make you call the embassy to make sure he had the correct pronunciation” of a foreign word, she said. “That was Mac.”

Mr. McGarry joined the show in its inaugural season after making his way down from New England.

A graduate of Fordham University, Mr. McGarry - born Maurice McGarry Jr. - originally planned to teach French but found himself behind the desk at a radio station in Pittsfield, Mass.

“I’m lucky,” Mr. McGarry said. “I groomed myself for this kind of job.”

Growing up in New York City, the young Mr. McGarry would listen to the great music shows of the 1930s and 1940s.

“It influenced me enormously,” he said. “I said if they could do it, I could do it.”

In 1950, at the prodding of Vin Scully, a good friend from school and announcer for WTOP radio, Mr. McGarry joined what is now NBC4 in Washington.

Mr. Scully, who went on to become the iconic voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, recalled Mr. McGarry in a 1989 interview with The Washington Times as “a very bright, very funny guy who worked at the Fordham radio station. He was very delightful. He was very witty, and I think the world of him.”

Even for Washingtonians who didn’t personally know Mr. McGarry, he was a familiar voice and face thanks to his time hosting “The Capitol Timeline” talk show from 1967 to 1969 and “In Our Town” from 1959 to 1960.

Others likely remember his smooth voice from his stint as an afternoon drive-time disc jockey for “The Mac McGarry Show” on WRC-AM from 1960 to 1972, a show he described in 1989 as “a middle-of-the-road-type thing.” But it was Mr. McGarry’s post at NBC’s Studio A where he is most easily placed.

The current version of the show pits three teams of three against one another in multiple rounds of questioning.

Some well-known “It’s Academic” alumni include Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, political commentator George Stephanopoulos and Academy Award winner Sandra Bullock, who donned her Washington-Lee High School cheerleading uniform in the studio to fire up her Arlington school’s team.

Ms. Altman said the former host will return to say a proper farewell sometime this season.

In the meantime, Ms. Howard will be asking the questions every Saturday morning throughout the school year.

“There’s obviously huge shoes to fill, and I can’t fill Mac McGarry’s shoes,” Ms. Howard said. “I’m really honored to be able to replace him. Just getting there, I wanted to do a good job for the Altmans and I really wanted to make Mac proud.”

Mr. McGarry said he will remain a member of the TV show family.

“Maybe I’ll write a question or two,” he said.

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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