Cover photo for James Albert MacMahon's Obituary
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1939 James 2024

James Albert MacMahon

April 7, 1939 — May 6, 2024

Logan, Utah

In the early morning hours of May 6, 2024, Jim MacMahon passed away with his wife, Patty, and loving dogs, Berkeley and Tavener, cuddled next to him.  He had just celebrated 85 years of living on April 7, 2024.   

To say that Jim’s life was busy and accomplished is an understatement.  He was born in Dayton, Ohio, to a single mom struggling to make ends meet.  Jim’s father left the family home prior to Jim’s birth and never returned.  As an eight-year-old, Jim could be found in the Dayton Museum of Natural History tapping on the glass of the reptile cages.  Thus, began an amazing career in community ecology.  His first job was cleaning those reptile cages to contribute to the family income.  His mother worked two jobs and was seldom home, leaving Jim to roam the areas around Dayton collecting snakes and discovering the great outdoors that would later become his passion. He became curator of reptiles at the Dayton Museum in 1953, before graduating from high school.

Thankfully, Jim was a bright student and succeeded academically, although with much mischief.   His mother insisted that he attend Chammonade Julienne (on scholarship), a private Catholic High School.  She had hoped he would be a priest but Jim had other ideas and was named a National Science Foundation Undergraduate Honors Fellow, granting him a scholarship to Michigan State University, where he graduated cum laude in 1960 with a BS in Zoology.  He then received one of the first National Science Foundation postgraduate scholarships to attend the University of Notre Dame, graduating with honors in 1964, completing his dissertation on the salamanders of Appalachia.  Jim embraced academia, returning to the University of Dayton where he was an associate professor for 10 years, teaching, writing, mentoring students, and conducting research.  

Jim moved west to Utah State University in 1971 to become a tenured Professor of Biology.  He fell in love with the beautiful Cache Valley, Utah State, and many friends.  Despite numerous opportunities to advance professionally, Jim elected to stay in Logan teaching, conducting research and mentoring master’s and doctorate students.  Through the course of his career, he had over 100 students completing advanced degrees and proudly calling him friend and mentor.  Jim served USU as the Dept. Head of Biology, Dean of Science, Vice President for Advancement, and Director of the Ecology Center.  He received a number of awards from Utah State recognizing his contributions to the university community.

Jim gave back to his community by sitting on local, national, and international boards; advising the governor and numerous scientific groups including the United Nations Council on Global Climate Change; serving a term as President of the Ecological Society of America; and advising National governments and the U.S. Congress on matters of ecology.  He loved it all but remained humble and considered himself a “simple country boy.”   His greatest gift was challenging those around him to rise above mediocrity and encouraging them, by example, to give back to help others.  His public presentations ranged from talking to school children about snakes and reptiles to international scientific gatherings about ecology and lessons learned on Mount St. Helens after the eruption.  He loved sharing the world of ecology with anyone willing to listen.

Jim married Patty in 1989 beginning a new chapter in his life.  She was by his side as he continued research on his beloved Mount St. Helens; established the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON); traveled the rainforests of the world searching for mammals, birds, reptiles, and local cultures.   Patty supported him in the demands of administration at USU; and accompanied Jim and his students to field work sites while trying to remember how to put up the tent.   She challenged him to relax and an avid interest in fly-fishing emerged.   They fished the great trout streams of the U.S. always cheering whenever a fish was on the fly and then gently putting it back into the water for future generations.  They caught bonefish and tarpon in Belize, redfish in Louisiana, salmon in Oregon, small mouth bass on the Shenandoah and sea trout in Florida.

After retirement, Jim developed an interest in the history and inner workings of steam trains. Once again, they traveled to find small, volunteer-run trains, riding through gorgeous country and enjoying every bit of the time spent together.  Jim loved a good red wine, scotch, opera, chamber music, the symphony, great food, books, and friends gathered around his dining room table, or a party on the deck. He was a wonderful story teller and had many entertaining mishaps from his long career. He had a zest for life but the best times were sitting on the deck with Patty, Tavener, and Berkeley, watching the birds and flowers emerge from the winter cold.  He is at peace now and would not want us to mourn his passing.  He would challenge us to celebrate the simplicity of life and be the best we can be. If you so desire, contributions can be made to the Jim and Patty MacMahon Graduate Student Scholarship in Ecology through the Department of Biology; Cache Humane Society; or the Cache Food Pantry.  There will be no funeral service as Jim did not want people to mourn his humble life.  Please raise a glass of your desired beverage and give a toast to this remarkable man.

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