Former DeKalb County school board member Jim McMahan (right) asks a question at a board meeting in 2013. McMahan died Sunday in a personal watercraft collision on Alabama’s Lake Wedowee. AJC FILE
Photo: Kent D. Johnson / AJC
Photo: Kent D. Johnson / AJC

Friends, colleagues mourn ex-DeKalb school board member Jim McMahan

Gov. Nathan Deal announced to reporters and others assembled at the statehouse on Feb. 25, 2013, that he was suspending six of the nine DeKalb County Board of Education members.

When the dust settled, those left were longtime educator Melvin Johnson, mortgage broker James McMahan and consultant firm partner Marshall Orson — with less than a year’s board experience between them and too few members to make any decisions.

“We didn’t even have a quorum,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “We were loners for a while there.”

McMahan, a father of two girls who attended DeKalb County schools, had campaigned on helping to get the district out of despair. When he was elected, the district was millions of dollars in debt, and it had been placed on probation by its accrediting agency.

When McMahan died Sunday in a personal watercraft collision on Alabama’s Lake Wedowee, the 53-year-old was doing what he’d planned after leaving the school board — spending quality time with family after six years on the school board.

Officials from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s marine patrol division said they were still investigating the crash and declined to comment on the matter.

According to a GoFundMe online fundraising site set up to offset costs related to the family’s recovery, the McMahans took a handful of people to the lake for vacation. Jim and his youngest daughter, Nancy, were on the lake Sunday morning when they somehow crashed on personal watercraft. A fisherman who heard the crash went to investigate. Jim McMahan was pronounced dead at the scene. Nancy was airlifted to an Atlanta hospital for treatment of life-threatening injuries. She suffered abdominal injuries and multiple broken bones, and her right leg was amputated in the crash.

About $60,000 had been raised two days after the accident.

It comes as no surprise for anyone who knows the McMahans, especially Jim, who friends praised for his dedication to his community and his family.

“Jim’s ability to bring folks together and make them want to be together was his greatest gift,” said childhood friend Joe Bresee. “He loved the chance to be with friends. His enthusiasm … to be part of a team or group evolved into his passion for forming and leading groups of people all over DeKalb County to work together to improve our kids’ educational opportunities.”

McMahan graduated from Atlanta’s Northside High School and attended Georgia State University and Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. He began a career in finance that eventually led to the start of McMahan Mortgage, where he was a broker.

Online and via email, people have shared stories of a family man always working to make something better and bring people together. He also was a popcorn aficionado, praised highly for the homemade snack he would often bring to various functions.

DeKalb County Board of Education member Allyson Gevertz, who succeeded McMahan on the board, said she approached him about political aspirations in 2017. He told her to run for the school board, that he had decided to leave the board once his term was up to spend more time with his family.

“When we last texted, he was at the lake with his family,” she said. “I told him I hadn’t been as available for our regular discussions because I’d been spending time in Oklahoma with my father, who had been hospitalized. Not only did he completely understand my situation, he encouraged me to go make new memories with my dad. As usual, he offered his number one recommendation: Family first.

“I’m taking his advice.”

In addition to daughter Nancy, McMahan is survived by his wife, Susan Kitchens McMahan, and another daughter, Madison. Funeral arrangements were not complete Tuesday. The DeKalb County School District has pledged to support the McMahan family in any way it could.

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