Farewell to a great man

Posted on February 16, 2021

Marshal ‘Joe’ McMahon (formerly Br Joseph) is a colossus of Joeys history. Humble and devout, he would certainly have balked at such a description, but there can be little doubt his nine years at the helm of St Joseph’s College brought great success in all fields of endeavour.

Aman of faith and action, he sought both individually and collectively to broaden the opportunities of all students. For him, a quality education was a matter of personal conscience

Marshal had a deep love of learning. It is no surprise and an article of College history, that his commitment to learning in the classroom and on the field, expressed itself through his energy to ensure the facilities of the College continued to serve the College community and provide growth and learning possibilities for Joeys boys. Under his leadership, new facilities were built, and existing buildings renovated as the College underwent a construction boom unlike any in its history. The list is extraordinary: Br Louis Music Centre (1984); Colo Outdoor Education Centre (1986); Br Angelus Science Wing (1989); Br Stanislaus Centre of the Visual Arts (1990); John Healy Fitness Centre (1990); Monsignor Duffy Learning Enrichment Centre (1991); an extra floor on Block D; and eight tennis courts, new change rooms and maintenance facilities at the main playing fields.

Together with a group of committed Old Boys, he also established the St Joseph’s College Foundation in the late 1980s to maximise the school’s finances and secure its economic future.  

Brother Anthony Boyd says Marshal was a man of vision who had the rare ability to bring others along with him: “By having a strong direction, he could generate great support and get people on board with his plans. Joe was an outstanding headmaster.”

In essence, he remained faithful to what should be changeless, yet open to what should change.

It would be foolish to measure Marshal’s contribution to St Joseph’s College in bricks and mortar alone. A no-nonsense leader who was prepared to wear criticism but not be swayed from his ultimate goal, Joe was strong of mind but soft of heart. He believed in the power of personal relationships and the primacy of the boys’ spiritual and mental welfare. His knowledge of, and interest in students’ school lives is the stuff of legend. He knew every boy and his family’s names. It was no accident. Br Anthony Boyd recalls that “Joe used to have an extended pre-enrolment interview with the boy and his family. He’d take an instamatic photo of them beside the elephant figure in his office then study the photos and memorise the names at night. He had a tremendous memory.”

The personal touch extended to daily classroom visits and wishing each boy many happy returns on his birthday. He coached the second XV, but he was no clipboard mentor, preferring to muck in with the boys and “sweat it out with us” – as students recalled at his farewell dinner. He also set up and participated in the Anawim physical exercise program for boys not involved in team sport. 

It was the manifestation of his famous maxim “our playing fields are an extension of the classroom”, which he felt could be applied to both teachers and students – the discipline and intensity of sport should be in evidence in academic pursuits and vice versa. It also fitted in with his “Four Golden Rules” of College life: no drugs, no smoking, no going out of bounds and no mucking up after the lights go out – rules many students may have resented at the time but later acknowledged played a key role in their academic success.

Mr McMahon’s vision was of resilient, manly boys who could rise to the challenge and display compassion and understanding when needed. The courage to keep the faith, step up for oneself and the courage to take care of others – the embodiment of who we are as Marists.

Br Anthony Boyd further recounts, “It was nothing for Joe to go visit people in country areas, see an old boy, parents or the family of someone who had passed away. When a person was in trouble he was happy to go where they were and do what he could to help.”

In 1991, as Marshal (Br Joseph) was exiting the College, Br Michael Naughtin penned a tribute to the former headmaster. He recalled the night a Year 12 student received the tragic news his sister had been killed. Marshal immediately drove him home to Canberra, bringing great comfort and solace to the boy and his family.

Pastoral care was central to his leadership style; and in the way of Mary it was characterised by warmth and kindness.

He encouraged a balance between the physical and spiritual aspects of life, blending sport, piety and devotion, arts and culture. He also expanded the study of visual and creative arts

Ex-students fondly recall the day he invited opera great Dame Joan Sutherland to sing at assembly. They also remember him arranging for every College boy to perform en masse at the Sydney Opera House.

Above all, Marshal believed that if you give a Joeys boy a chance he can accomplish anything. But he also recognised that wearing the cerise and blue was a privilege that came with an obligation to help those less fortunate.

It was a Marist vision of hope and humility he brought to bear on every-day life at the College.

“Many of the qualities of Marcellin Champagnat are evident in the character of Br Joseph and have been reflected in his leadership of the College,” toasted Joeys parent Karl Schmude at a country dinner. “His courage and perseverance, his honesty, his fairness, his integrity and faithfulness and his robust spirituality.”

Marshal carried these qualities with him during his subsequent appointments as Principal of McCarthy (now Penola) Catholic College at Emu Plains, Rector of St John’s College at the University of Sydney, Headmaster of St Gregory’s College at Campbelltown, and in more recent years as a teacher at Parramatta Marist High School.

Vale Marshal McMahon, a man of faith, purpose and integrity, who taught the gospel message and lived it among his students and staff. All at St Joseph’s College extend deepest sympathy to his loving  wife of 28 years, Teresa, and the extended McMahon family.