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Cameron McMahon: Grande Dame of local politics always willing to help

Cameron McMahon

Mid-evening on an election night in the early 1980s. a reporter making a stop at DFL Headquarters in downtown Bemidji couldn't get past the door without being greeted with a hug.

"My dear boy," Cammie McMahon said in a deep Nor' eastern accent as she heartily hugged the reporter, then in his mid-20s. "You must be from the Pioneer."

She directed the reporter around the room, introducing him to the party officials and candidates, often mentioning that she too had a background in journalism.

Dressed rather flamboyantly, she spoke with an air of authority that spoke volumes of many other election night vigils she'd attended over the years.

It was my first encounter with Cameron McMahon, but not my last over the years, especially at party events. One was when she was schmoosing with former Vice President Walter Mondale at an event at Ruttger's scant months before he announced his 1984 bid for president.

Later, I found out she had a rich career - both behind the scenes working hard for the local Democratic Party and in public as an elected official -- the first woman elected to the Bemidji City Council -- and her involvement in many civic organizations.

Cameron McMahon died Thursday evening after a stay at Havenwood Care Center. Funeral services are 10:30 a.m. today at St. Philip's Catholic Church, followed by a luncheon at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Wilton.

"She was an adviser in many respects," John O'Boyle said Tuesday. O'Boyle, long-time DFL party member and also a Bemidji City Council member, said McMahon's influence "was very important in the party."

"She showed up at all the fundraisers," said Delores Cloud Hammitt. "She helped organize fundraisers and attended all of them."

Cloud Hammitt, who served as Beltrami DFL Party chairwoman in the early 1980s, remembers especially when McMahon would make clam chowder served with hard tack bread.

"She always promoted her Irish roots, and not just on St. Patrick's day," Cloud Hammitt said, adding that three party activists -- McMahon, O'Boyle and john McCarthy -- were known as the Irish Trio.

Jim and Cammie McMahon were a partnership -- both had been reporters and had married while working at newspapers in Maine and then moved west. By the time they reached Bemidji, they both sought to help the DFL Party.

"After Jim died, she kept his role in the party," O'Boyle said. "She came from the East, but she liked the Midwest."

That was a long time, as Jim McMahon died in 1975, after a career founding the Mass Communications Department at Bemidji State University and later become director of information services.

"She always venerated him well after his death," Jim Heltzer remembered Tuesday. Heltzer, now a Beltrami County commissioner, was housing and economic development director for the city of Bemidji.

Cammie McMahon was a long-time member of the Bemidji Housing and Redevelopment Authority Board, a board that is still on the books but seldom meets.

"She always held a high regard for the university," Heltzer said. "She had a very strong sense of responsibility for low-income families."

McMahon fought for more affordable housing in Bemidji while serving on the Bemidji HRA Board, Heltzer said. "She persuaded me to join the board of Habitat for Humanity."

"She was a character," he remembers. "She didn't drive, so she was always looking for a ride."

She was a card, too, with at least one urban legend story which O'Boyle reminded me of.

"She will always be remembered for a story with a religious slant," O'Boyle said: After two men with Bibles appeared at her doorstep to proselytize, one asked McMahon if she had found the Lord.

In her perfect Maine accent, McMahon innocently replied: "Oh my Gawd, is he lost too?"

Before serving on the Bemidji HRA Board, McMahon made history in her own right, winning election in 1970 as the first woman Bemidji City Council member. She served three, two-year at-large terms from 1971-78.

"She was a pleasure to have on the council," said Doug Peterson, who served 26 years as mayor of Bemidji. "She was a very serious councilperson and very hard working."

Peterson remembers that she told him she wanted election to the council "so she could be a burr under the council's saddle, and she was."

McMahon served seven years on the Bemidji Library Board and spearheaded a drive to move the Bemidji Public Library from the Federal Building to the now-ERA Realty office next to St. Philip's.

"She always supported the library and tried to make it better," Peterson said. "She loved the library."

Peterson said he knew both Cammie and Jim McMahon before she was elected to the City Council.

"Before going on the council, I owned a small grocery store," Peterson said. "she bought all her meat from me. I enjoyed talking with her."

In her later life, she remained a member of the Beltrami County DFL Board of Directors nearly up to her death.

"Before she got ill, she still wanted to be on the board," Michael Meuers, a past Beltrami County DFL chairman, said Tuesday. "It was hard for her to volunteer, but she'd do what she could do."

There was always a spot for her on the board, "as she brought history and continuity to the party," Meuers said. "I admire her most for being the first woman elected to the Bemidji City Council, after 70 years as a city."

Meuers takes note of that occasion, as his wife, Barbara, is the fourth woman elected to the Bemidji City Council.

As a Beltrami DFL chairman, Meuers said McMahon was a huge help to him. "She was always very encouraging. She was always there for me."

Meuers said he "loved theway she talked," with her distinct Maine accent. "I also got a kick out of her referring to herself as 'Mrs. James McMahon' all the time."

The local party in September 2005 awarded McMahon and four others with "Beltrami DFL Lifetime Achievement Awards."