Oral history by: Danielle Jimenez
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Joe McMahon is an influential member of the community whose life has been filled with great value and rich experiences. I had the pleasure of being able to interview Joe to learn about his family’s history in an effort to share his life with the community. Throughout his life, Joe has achieved many goals that led to a fulfilling career in the educational system. He has always been fueled by his passions. His oral history proves that he is a wise, determined, hard working, and open minded man.
Joe McMahon was born on January 8th 1937 in the mountains of Sonora, California. His parents were Wilber McMahon, and Mary Jane Nicholson, a young married couple in their early twenties. Joe’s family moved to San Francisco, California at the beginning of World War II. Joe speaks fondly of that fact that he spent his childhood summers in Sonora. He and his younger sister Mary Jane enjoyed warm, quiet summers in the country and the bustling city life of San Francisco for the rest of the year. During the war Joe’s father was unable to fight because he had two small children to take care of. Wilber worked in the ship yards and provided Joe with a happy childhood. He recollects that he never went without anything he needed. His father was a hard working man and Joe’s ancestry proves the same of his entire family.
Joe has a very culturally rich ancestry and he has researched in detail his family’s journey to California. Joes’ mothers family traveled here with the Deanza Portola expedition when the Spanish were recruiting families to Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico with promises of riches and an escape from their old lives. With the promise of land, and cattle, Mary Jane’s family walked all the way from Central Mexico. Her mother Maria Josephina was the oldest girl in a family with twenty brothers. Joe can trace his family history all the way back to a relation of William the conqueror. He is Joe’s great grandfather many generations back, who fought for religious freedom from persecution. Joe’s father’s family came to California from Ireland during the potato famine. They came with nearly nothing and sought out fortune in the Gold Rush as so many others did before them. Unfortunately they found no great fortune and eventually became cattlemen. Joe’s genealogy is just a small piece of the importance that gives him historical value to our community.
The hardworking lifestyles of his ancestors, and parent’s set an excellent example for Joe. His own determination would shine through his work in the California educational system. Joe’s journey with education began with his own experience as a student. He attended an all boys private school in San Francisco in his younger years. After graduating from High School he went on to study at San Francisco State University. There Joe majored in biological sciences. He had the opportunity to experience the melting pot that is San Francisco, filled with culturally, sexually and ethnically diverse neighbors.
During his college years, the US government was drafting young men just like Joe to fight and sacrifice their lives for their country in Vietnam. An interesting fact that Joe shared was that he was exempt from the draft due to his major being science. On October 4th 1957, the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, which was a satellite that orbited our Earth and sparked what is known as the “great space age”. After the Soviet Union achieved this, the United States felt that it had fallen behind. The government declared that all men majoring in science in the 1960’s were needed to help them catch up. As a result, Joe was deferred from being drafted into the Vietnam War.
On his first day of school at San Francisco state that Joe met the love of his life, and future wife, Joanna. They would eventually marry in 1960 and two years later would welcome their son Mark to the world. With the arrival of his son, and after graduating from college, Joe realized he needed to find a way to support his new family. His original dream was to become a world traveling photographer. Luckily for many of his future students, Joe quickly figured out that photography wasn’t exactly his expertise. He was told that with his major in biological sciences he could either go into the occupation of research or become an educator. Joe had such a strong desire to interact with people, the answer was clear to him.
In September 1960, Joe became a teacher at Mountain View High School. He gained a broad range of experience in teaching. When Joe first became a teacher the school system was much more formal than it is today. He recalls that the men always wore ties, with matching socks. You would find that all female teachers wore dresses or skirts. Students had a large amount of respect for the faculty, for grades and for education as a whole. In the 1960’s, Mountain View High was full of students with blue collar parents. There was very little parent involvement in the school. The student body was ethnically mixed. Joe describes the 1970s and 1980s as a time for change within the educational system. For the first time, drugs were becoming an issue within the schools. In the early 1980s old Mountain View High was torn down and Joe moved to teach at Las Salvas High School. Las Salvas was an upper class school. While Joe worked here changes continued to be made including the increased involvement that parent’s had in their child’s education. During this time, parents began to push their children towards higher education and the competitive application process that we know of today began.
When Joe was a teacher, he had all the freedom he found necessary to teach his students the topics he felt appropriate. As a teacher, he had the freedom to determine his lesson plans, and select specific books for his class to read. Over the years, however, Joe was a witness to the vast changes, made by the government to enforce standardized tests, and strict state standards. Teachers would no longer be able to teach any subject that they wished to without approval first. They would be forced to teach students strictly to the state’s guidelines in an effort to produce increasing standardized test scores. Joe reflects on this change as a sad shift that has trapped teachers into a very difficult system. It would is not enjoyable for educators to be restricted to such narrow subject material. He found that as the government changed what happened in the classrooms, the students inside them were changing as well. Students began to care less about school, and more about the social aspect of the sex, drugs, music that the 1970’s and 80’s represented. The school system became much looser, with students lacking respect, excitement to learn and clear goals such as earning good grades. He left the school system just as there was beginning to be too much pressure on teacher’s for teachers to “teach to the tests.” Joe understood that through each generation of new students change is inevitable. The educational system now continues to grow and develop just as the student’s needs, personalities and attitudes within it do also.
In June 1992, Joe left his occupation as an educator and set off for the next adventure of his life. While working at Macy’s, Joe decided to open up a reptile store in San Jose, California. He named his pet store “Dancing with Snakes,” and enjoyed having his own business. This period of his life was a fun and imaginative transitional period for him. Eventually he would sell his store, and again seek out new adventures to fill his time.
Joe has been retired for over twenty years now. However, he has been probably been busier these last few years than ever before. To say that Joe is currently an active member of the community is a vast understatement. He is currently a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, involved with three historical societies, a volunteer at the local hospital as well as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and an employee of the San Juan Bautista state park. He is also a published author of two books depicting local history. In 2006 he began to write a novel on the history of San Juan Bautista with the Arcadia publishing company. With such a brilliant success, he would go on to co-write a novel on Hollister’s community history in 2010.
Joe is a friendly man who works hard to give back to the community that he loves so dearly. Now residing in Hollister California, Joe and his wife Joanna actively help others of their community in every way possible. Joe has a positive outlook on life , and an open mind.. He expresses a joy for life, and learning. He believes that we all should “always be open to learn,” and never to get set in our ways.
Joe was a key witness to great educational changes occurring in the community, the students, the faculty, and the government during his time as an educator. He has inspired hundreds of students to find their own passions in life. His family background provides us with key personal accounts of California History. He is an original community member of San Francisco, as well as a 9th generation Californian. Joe’s value as a historical subject is blatantly obvious. However, more importantly than that, his value as a person full of wisdom extends beyond the facts and dates that make up his biography. Joe is a man who is open to enjoying every moment, and helping others in whatever ways he can. He believes that there is always something more to learn about life. Joe continues to make every day of his life have significance, and he himself said that he’s “not through yet.”