Educator, historian, coach, athlete, arts patron and political junkie – all are words family, friends and colleagues used to describe William “Bill” Mahan.
“He had such a breadth of interests and breadth of knowledge. He wasn’t a one-note guy,” said Penny Harding, Mahan’s partner of 35 years.
Mahan influenced the lives of generations of Sacramento students, first as a high school history teacher and coach, and then as an instructor at Sacramento City College.
Mahan died Aug. 18 in Sacramento at age 85. Harding said he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“He was my history teacher as a junior at Sacramento High School,” said Sacramento art critic Victoria Dalkey. “He taught me so much about American history and government and how it works.”
What she learned in his class profoundly influenced her political views, Dalkey said.
As a cross-country coach at Sacramento’s John F. Kennedy High School, Mahan coached runner Clifton West to a section championship during the high school’s first year.
“He had just the right mixture of humility and firmness,” recalled West, who went on to become a coach and remained a close friend of Mahan.
Mahan also coached West’s brother, philosopher and author Cornel West, who in his memoir, “Living and Loving Out Loud,” described Mahan as a “progressive white brother” who introduced him to books that were key to his intellectual development.
The son of Lola and Wilbur Mahan, William Edward Mahan was born in Illinois and grew up in Illinois and Wisconsin, graduating from high school in Neenah, Wis. He earned an undergraduate degree and teaching credential at San Jose State University and a master’s degree in history at Stanford University.
After teaching for two years at Whittier High School, Mahan moved to Sacramento. He taught for 10 years at Sacramento High School and four years at Kennedy High, then joined the faculty at Sacramento City College, where he spent 22 years teaching history. After retiring at age 63, Mahan returned to Kennedy High to coach the school’s cross-country teams for five years.
Harding said Mahan was particularly interested in California and Sacramento history. He started giving guided tours of the Old City Cemetery for his students, and the tours later evolved into a popular community program spotlighting the city’s pioneers.
His historical research was featured in various publications, including California History, the journal of the California Historical Society. He also wrote and produced videos on public art and local history that appeared on local educational television stations.
He had such a breadth of interests and breadth of knowledge. He wasn’t a one-note guy.
Walter Sherwood, an English instructor, recalled team teaching a college class with Mahan on the social relevancy of literature. A study of the industrial revolution, for example, included reading Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”
“He was a pretty animated lecturer,” Sherwood said of Mahan.
Mahan loved a lively exchange of ideas.
Maurice Read said he met Mahan, a staunch Democrat and labor union supporter, in 1963 when both were members of the Young Democrats.
“He was quite liberal, but not judgmental,” Read said, noting that a discussion with Mahan was never an argument.
Sherwood, too, recalled that such exchanges were always friendly. “He would ask probing questions,” Sherwood said, “but there was no animosity.”
In retirement, Read said, Mahan staffed a voter registration table at Sacramento City College before each election, helping add thousands of students to the rolls.
Mahan was also an art lover who delighted in collecting the works of Sacramento-area artists. He combined that appreciation of art and history in a successful campaign to save a mural by Depression-era artist Ralph Stackpole in the foyer of the Sacramento City College auditorium. He and art instructor Darrell Forney led an effort to restore the mural in the early 1980s, which eventually led to restoration of the art deco auditorium, the campus’ performing arts center.
Mahan, an avid reader, was a volunteer in the Sacramento Library’s Sacramento Room. He also taught courses on the history of the mystery novel and detective novel through the Renaissance Society at California State University, Sacramento.
A lifelong fan of baseball’s Chicago Cubs and a River Cats season-ticket holder, Mahan also was a marathon runner and member of the Buffalo Chips Running Club. Although Mahan didn’t start running until he was in his 40s, he competed in 11 marathons, including one six months after having heart bypass surgery and the last at age 75, Harding said.
In addition to Harding, of Sacramento, and her daughter, Perséphone Harding, of Portland, Ore., Mahan is survived by his first wife, Virginia Hall of San Anselmo and their daughter, Alyce Mahan Brownridge of Las Vegas, along with a brother, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by daughter Laura Bea Albrecht.
At Mahan’s request, no formal services will be held. Memorial contributions in his name may be made to the Sacramento Room of the Sacramento Public Library, 828 I St., Sacramento, CA 95814.