John W. “Jack” Mahan, a retired Helena attorney, died peacefully on July 4, 2012, in his home. Independence Day was a fitting date for this former World War II Marine pilot and national veterans leader to depart this life. He was 89.
Jack Mahan was a proud husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He contributed greatly to his nation, his state and his community over the decades.
He was born June 24, 1923, in Missoula, the son of John W. Mahan Sr., an attorney, and his wife, Iola. His father was former national commander of the Disabled American Veterans and later brigadier general and Montana’s adjutant general. His mother was president of the American Legion Auxiliary in Helena.
He graduated from Helena High School in 1941, serving as student body president his senior year. Mahan also worked as a doorman at the Marlow Theatre, where his sweetheart and future wife, Shirley Tuohy, also worked.
Jack enrolled at the University of Montana in 1941, where he was elected president of the freshman class and joined Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Jack joined the Navy Air Corps in the spring of 1942 with the goal of being a Marine pilot. He began training as a Navy cadet at Carroll College before attending other preflight schools.
He was discharged by the Navy in Corpus Christi, Texas, on April 3, 1943, and commissioned next day as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps with Navy wings. On that same day he married Shirley Tuohy in Corpus Christi. She was only 17 and needed her father’s permission to get married.
Jack served as a dive bomber pilot in the Pacific Theater during World War II, flying a number of missions.
After his discharge as a major in 1945, Jack returned to Helena to attend Carroll College. Taking advantage of the GI Bill, he attended law school at what’s now UM. He graduated from law school and was admitted to the state bar in 1949.
Jack began practicing law in Helena and built a successful trial law practice.
He attended meetings of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1116 in Helena. Veterans were angry that Montana failed to provide them with a bonus as other states had done for their World War II veterans. The state hadn’t done so because after World War I, the Montana Supreme Court had found these bonuses to be unconstitutional.
He and another lawyer came up with the idea of calling it an “honorarium” instead of a “bonus.” Veterans groups moved for an initiative imposing a two-cent tax on cigarettes sold to raise for $22 million for the honorarium for World War II veterans. Voters approved the proposal by a landslide, and it withstood a court challenge.
After being commander for the Helena VFW post, Jack became state VFW commander, then a regional commander, before moving through the chairs at the national VFW. He was the national commander in chief of the 1.3 million-member VFW in 1958-1959.
As national VFW commander, Jack worked with Montana’s congressional delegation to get a new veterans hospital built at Fort Harrison, west of Helena. He enlisted the help of his friend, Rep. Olen “Tiger” Teague, D-Texas, who chaired the committee overseeing the Veterans Administration funding. After Teague came to Fort Harrison for a visit, the VA reversed its position and later announced a new 160-bed hospital would be built at Fort Harrison, with $5.4 million allocated for the first phase.
As VFW commander in chief, Mahan choose to spend more time in Washington, D.C., to get to know senators and congressman to inform them about the problems faced by veterans and work with them to find solutions.
Throughout his career, Jack got to know Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and worked with them on veterans issues.
U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., once said, “John W. Mahan has done more for the veterans of Montana and the nation than any other man I know.”
After his time as VFW national commander ended, Jack returned to Helena to practice law. At age 36, he ran for the U.S. Senate but lost in the Democratic primary election.
Later that year, he was appointed national chairman of the Veterans for Kennedy presidential campaign committee in 1960. Four years later, he headed the national Veterans for Johnson committee.
Jack turned down an appointment by President Kennedy to be an assistant secretary of the Navy. In September 1965, he accepted President Johnson’s appointment to the national Subversive Activities Control Board with the goal of “helping keep America clear of Communists and subversive elements.” And, the Mahan family moved to Arlington, Va.
In December 1965, Johnson appointed Jack as chairman of the board, and President Nixon later reappointed him chairman.
After the board ended in the fall of 1973, Nixon appointed Jack to some top jobs in the Veterans Administration. He eventually became undersecretary to the VA Memorial Services and director of the national cemetery system, overseeing a major expansion of the national system and the creation of state veterans cemeteries.
When that job ended in 1978, Jack and Shirley Mahan returned to Helena, where he resumed his law practice. She died on March 30, 2002.
Jack was a great host, always interested in others as he entertained family and friends with stories about his life and his views on the issues of the day.
He is survived by his daughter Kim and her husband, John Dunham, of Siloam Springs, Ark, and their two daughters, Bartley and Kara; his daughter Shelley and her husband, Carter Picotte, of Helena; his daughter Bartley and her husband, Bill Aanenson, of Issaquah, Wash., and their three children, Justin, Rebecca and Michelle; and his son, Dr. John Mahan, and his wife, Leslie, and their three children, Kristen, Jaren and Kylie. He also is survived by 11 great-grandchildren.
Other survivors include his sister-in-law, Jane, and her husband, Gene Thayer, of Great Falls; and four nieces and one nephew.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Shirley Mahan; his father, John W. Mahan Sr.; mother, Iola Mahan; sister, Lucille Foot; and brother, Tom Mahan; and their spouses.
The family offers special thanks to Brenda Thompson, his personal caregiver, for the past two and a half years and all his special friends that visited him and encouraged him. Also, thanks to Dr. Pincomb and the wonderful nurses and staff at St. Peter’s dialysis unit, and Dr. Weiner and his excellent staff.
There will be a funeral Mass at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 7, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral, 511 Park Ave., where Jack was a longtime member. Rite of committal will take place in the columbarium wall outside St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral. A reception will immediately follow the services at the Montana Club, 24 W. Sixth Ave. In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to the Montana Military Museum, P.O. Box 125, Fort Harrison, MT 59636-0125. Please visit www.
aswfuneralhome.com to offer the family condolences.