In the late 1980s, when Denison alumni were developing the group that is now known as Denison Pride, they had an immediate and enthusiastic supporter: Denison Trustee Joe McMahon ’62. “It wasn’t an especially easy time to be gay,” recalls Jeffrey Masten ’86, one of the group’s founders, and now a Denison board member himself. “It felt crucial that a trustee was willing to step up and say, 'This is important. I want to be involved.’” For McMahon, it was a piece of the civil rights work that he had been focused on for decades.
For the three consecutive summers after he graduated from Denison, he worked as a legal intern for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. Later, after graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, he became a staff member for Edward Brooke, the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate.
He went on to serve as the vice president of the Boston Republican Committee and was appointed by President Gerald Ford as a member of the National Council of Economic Opportunity. He served as director of national business for the Reagan-Bush Election Committee. For McMahon, political work was an essential way to make progress on causes he felt most strongly about.
In 1981, he started his own law firm, McMahon & Associates, and focused on areas including alternative energy, organic agriculture development, and microenterprise development. In addition to serving on the boards of directors for many organizations, he stayed involved in an array of issues focused on diversity and inclusion. As a longtime Denison trustee, he hosted receptions at his home for LGBTQ-linked events for Denison students and alumni, and he worked tirelessly to increase diversity on campus. “Joe was always insistent on raising the number of black and international students who attended Denison,” says Rev. Gary Simpson ’84, a Denison trustee. “He also recruited many black students and mentored them while they were enrolled.” McMahon established multiple funds to support internships in programs related to priorities in his life. “He always stressed the importance of working within institutions on issues including diversity and visibility,” says Masten.
McMahon also fought tenaciously for equality within his church. “Joe was a person of strong faith, and he was relentless in trying to make his Evangelical Lutheran Church more gay-friendly,” recalls Rick Carson ’65. “He was a very determined man.” But always, says Carson, he advocated for his positions with warmth and humor.
“He was a man of principle,” says Kim Cromwell ’81, a co-founder of Denison Pride and a former Denison trustee. “He was giving of himself, and it showed in so many ways.”
Joe McMahon died on April 21, 2017, at the age of 76. He had served Denison as a trustee from 1972 to 2000, when he was named life trustee. In 2011, he was awarded the Denison University Alumni Citation. He is survived by his sister, Patricia Hutson, and numerous cousins. —Erin Peterson