John Mahoney, former priest and St. Louis School Board member, dies

2012-08-25T00:05:00Z 2012-08-26T07:18:16Z John Mahoney, former priest and St. Louis School Board member, diesBY MICHAEL D. SORKIN — > 314-340-8347

John Mahoney, who died Aug. 2, 2012, at age 70, was a former Catholic priest and a longtime member of the St. Louis School Board.

He helped lead the board at a time when the members were bitterly divided over how to end school segregation. In 1991, board members couldn't even agree on who should serve as president.

After much bickering, they turned to Mr. Mahoney as interim president.

During 18 years on the board, Mr. Mahoney fought for new taxes and bond issues to improve conditions in the beleaguered schools. He also served a term as president.

John Patrick Mahoney Jr. died at Mercy Skilled Nursing Center in Creve Coeur. He was diagnosed in 2009 with lung cancer, said his longtime companion, Debra Macaulay of St. Louis. He lived in the Tower Grove East neighborhood.

Mr. Mahoney was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up in Bellefontaine Neighbors, where his family had moved in the early 1950s.

At St. Louis University High School, from which he graduated in 1960, he was captain of the soccer team, pitcher on the baseball team and quarterback on the football team. He was an "A" student.

"Parents would say, 'Why can't you be more like John Mahoney?' " recalled high school classmate Jim Rick.

Mr. Mahoney's mother wanted one of her sons to become a priest. Mr. Mahoney turned down a college football scholarship for seminary training, his brother recalled.

Mr. Mahoney did his training at Cardinal Glennon College and then at North American College in Rome. He was ordained in 1967 and returned to St. Louis to serve at several parishes.

He became involved with a woman friend, Rick said, and, in 1979, decided to leave the priesthood. He returned to school and earned a doctorate in education and counseling at St. Louis University.

He held a series of jobs, in the human resources department at the old Famous-Barr, at St. Louis University Hospital, and later selling real estate.

Friends said he had a missionary zeal to help others, especially children. He ran for the School Board and was elected to his first six-year term in 1983.

The district was in the midst of a controversial desegregation plan in the '80s and '90s. Thousands of children were bused from the city to schools in the county, and some county students attended the city's magnet schools. As the city's population fell, the schools lost students and money. Many families fled to the suburbs.

Mr. Mahoney and others felt the survival of the public schools was at stake, recalled the Rev. Earl Nance Jr. The two served together from 1987 to 1997.

When Jerome Jones, an African-American superintendent, came under attack from white board members opposed to busing, Mr. Mahoney defended him.

He also defended Jones in 1986 when the Post-Dispatch disclosed that Jones was billing the district for charitable and political donations, hotel bills higher than $200 a night, and lunches and dinners at expensive St. Louis restaurants.

"I don't know where you can go and buy a meal, a dinner, for under 100 bucks these days," Jones said, a comment that drew more criticism.

"He believed in supporting the superintendent and staff so they could do the work that needs to be done," Nance recalled.

Mr. Mahoney was part of the "4 Candidates for Kids" slate in 1991 that got Civic Progress backing against a slate called the Citizens Council.

Nance called the opposing group "avowed racists" and the election a "fight for the very heart and soul of the district."

Mr. Mahoney, Nance and their slate won, but the fight wasn't over.

When board members couldn't agree on a $300 million bond issue to overhaul aging schools, Mr. Mahoney helped broker a compromise for $150 million, Nance recalled.

Former board member Richard Gaines said Mr. Mahoney used the skills he had learned as a parish priest to bring together the board's various factions.

"He was a damn good mediator," Gaines said.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. today at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church, 3628 Lindell Boulevard. Mr. Mahoney donated his body to SLU School of Medicine.

Survivors, in addition to Macaulay, include his brother, Richard M. Mahoney of Overland Park, Kan.

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