Former School Board Member Going Strong at 100

John McCaw sitting at home

After former School Board member John McCaw celebrated his 100th birthday, we spoke with him about his decades of service to education and the community.

Dr. John McCaw is a proud graduate of Lincoln High School, valedictorian of the Class of 1935.

On March 10th of this year Dr. McCaw turned the ripe old age of 100. He was celebrated on March 12th at an open house attended by hundreds of his closest friends at Wakonda Christian Church that included a mayoral citation. Think of how many more would have been there had they not been outlived.

His graduation from high school and his 100th birthday bookend the last eight decades of Dr. McCaw’s life. Those 82 years were ones marked by public service. Prime among them were eight years on the Des Moines School Board that straddled the late 1960s and mid-70s, an era of great upheaval in America.

“One thing I tried to establish is that we should measure a student’s progress,” he said recently, “rather than where they fall on a scale of arbitrary criteria.” He used the example of a PE student climbing a rope. “If they couldn’t even lift themselves off the ground and by the end of the semester they get halfway up, that’s good progress,” he said.

And maybe an example drawn from personal experience?

“When I went out for football at Lincoln I weighed about 98 pounds and the seniors used me for a tackling dummy,” McCaw said. “Later I got involved with speech and I did quite well there.”

McCaw graduated from Drake University in 1939. His studies continued at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.

In 1942 he married Maxine Mae Gambs, a North High grad. They were inseparable for more than 70 years until Maxine’s death in 2013. Maxine was a concert pianist and later a music teacher.  John and Maxine’s four children all graduated from Lincoln and a scholarship fund in their names was established at the school by their parents.

Two pianos still sit in the McCaw home and John likes to brag on his late wife.

“She studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with Leonard Bernstein,” he says proudly. “Once, when Dr. Martin Luther King came to Des Moines, I was introduced to him as Maxine’s husband.”

In 1950 John became the Dean of the Bible College at Drake and led it to full accreditation as the (now defunct) School of Divinity. He received numerous recognitions as a professor there, including the Centennial Award, the Dawson Award, the Alumni Distinguished Service Award and the Drake Medal of Service, before retiring in 1982.

Following the infamous Johnny Bright incident when Drake’s star black quarterback had his jaw deliberately broken by a white player from Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) in 1951, Dr. McCaw was called upon to speak at a racially charged collegiate conference.

“I preached a sermon of reconciliation,” he says now with tears welling in his eyes, “and there was reconciliation.”

2017 is an election year for the school board. Might Dr. McCaw consider throwing his hat back into the ring?

“Hah,” he laughed. “Some people used to beg me to get back on. I shook things up. I was both loved and hated. When I wanted to visit our schools, I didn’t call and tell them I was coming. I liked to sneak in the back door so I could see what was really going on.”

He still lives on the Southside, not far from Jefferson Elementary School, the serious gardener, beekeeper and peacemaker whose pastoral ways led him to offer himself to the school district that’s never been far from his heart.

Note to school board members everywhere: The next time you feel like your service is taking years off your life, remember Dr. John McCaw.

“I never drank or smoke and I still exercise on my treadmill,” he confided when asked the secrets to his longevity. “But I eat whatever I like – bacon and eggs for breakfast. I only have one health issue. Whenever I get near a body of water, I break out in a terrible rash. There’s only one cure for it – a fishing pole.”

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