Edward “Ed” McMahon was a straight shooter when it came to government finance, always prepared, unafraid to tell you what you might not want to hear.
When his boss, Robert Carothers, chancellor of the Minnesota State University System, came up with the idea of opening a branch campus in Akita, Japan, McMahon wasn’t excited about it, and he said so.
But in negotiations in the United States and Japan, McMahon delivered, and when the campus opened in 1990, he could be seen there, beaming, Carothers recalled recently.
McMahon, who went on to become the first vice chancellor for finance of what is now Minnesota State, died May 10 after a brief illness. He was 87.
He began his career in 1954 as a professor of communications at Mankato State College and eventually became vice president and then acting president of what is now Minnesota State University, Mankato. After a brief time as vice chancellor of the statewide system, he was bounced by the new chancellor. Upon his exit from public life in 1995, he was described by the Star Tribune’s Gregor W. Pinney as the “undisputed master of finances” for the state university system.
Then, as now, higher-education officials from the University of Minnesota and the system overseeing state universities appeared at the State Capitol to make high-stakes pitches for state funding.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, a past chairman of the House Higher Education Finance Committee, said that McMahon was “old school,” never without a tie, meticulous in his preparation.
“His presentations had content,” Pelowski said.
He also was a private pilot and sports car driver who reveled in the give-and-take of Capitol discussions. Pelowski never doubted the accuracy of his numbers. But he said McMahon also could take fiscal responsibility to the extreme by balking at promising new ventures, including the creation of a residential college program at Winona State University that Pelowski said has “turned out to be one of the best buys ever” for the Minnesota State system.
“He did good service for higher education and the state of Minnesota,” Pelowski said. “That is undeniable. But higher education was going to change.”
In July 1995, the state forced a merger of three operations: the state’s technical colleges, community colleges and the universities outside the University of Minnesota system. As vice chancellor for what then was dubbed MnSCU (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities), McMahon did the work of four people with little in the way of resources, a colleague said at the time.
In August of that year, Judith Eaton assumed the role of chancellor, and two months later she asked for McMahon’s resignation. In an interview with the Star Tribune, Eaton said McMahon, who was 65 at the time, had made “extraordinary contributions” to the system, and that the two had discussed the possibility of him staying on for a time as a consultant. But nothing came of the talks.
McMahon opted, instead, to clean out his desk that afternoon and to end his career, which he did amid praise from his colleagues.
He and his wife, Barbara, moved to Surprise, Ariz., and the two enjoyed a “wonderful retirement,” said daughter Kathleen Rosenfield.
McMahon also is survived by daughters Patricia Boman, Mary Wicker, Erin Blanshan and Carrie Ann Lundberg; 11 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.