Educator, U.S. Air Force veteran, historian, and writer, Dr. James David “Jim” McBride had a way of joining and staying – a tenacity to choose what he found important and excelling.

 Time after time, others came to him and enlisted his skills. That manifested itself in a life filled with purpose, a life well-lived, such as teaching while in his 80s.

Jim joined the U.S. Air Force at age 17, just after World War II, to achieve his quest to become an aircraft mechanic. His proficiency led to teaching those skills across 22 years (1947-69) with the Army Air Corps and the U.S.A.F. He would be stationed around the world, including Japan, England, Labrador, Newfoundland, Greenland, and for years in Roswell, New Mexico, famous for the alleged crash site of a UFO and its passengers of aliens.

  “People used to ask me if I saw any little people …  I’d say, ‘Sure, every time I look in a mirror,” he would tell them.

Dr. McBride earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Maryland in 1963 in education, a master of arts degree in education from Arizona State University (1966), a master’s of arts degree in liberal arts from ASU (1974), and a Ph.D. in history from ASU in 1983. He would joke that he had four college degrees but never graduated from high school.

After his military years, Jim devoted his time to further education and teaching social studies, geography, anthropology, and American history at Corona del Sol High School, Mesa Community College, and Arizona State University.  He would distinguish himself as a Danforth Foundation Fellow (1985), was named a Distinguished Teacher by the National Council of Geographic Education (1985), and was a grantee to attend a Fulbright Seminar in China (1987).  In 1989, Jim was named as the recipient of the Wilbur Murra Award by the Arizona Council of Social Studies

 In a Tempe History Museum Oral History interview in 2015, Jim spent more than half of it reflecting on his military years and his unfolding expertise with air mechanics, in-air refueling, and training others.

Jim was born on August 18, 1930, in St. Louis.  “I grew up in St. Louis, and when I went to high school, even before I started high school, I knew I wanted to be an aircraft mechanic,” he said.  That led him to a vocational school, Hadley Technical High School, where he could focus on skills.  “I was very satisfied. I knew what I wanted to do, where I wanted to work,” Jim would say.  Things changed sharply in his junior year. His father had come home from service in World War II “with some serious problems” and Jim was pulled out of school, and the family moved to northern Louisiana in March 1947.

Disappointed that his vocational plan could not be realized in a “little town of 1,800,” he learned that the Army Air Corps trained mechanics.  “The military was so desperate for people, they would promise you anything,” he said.  Because he was underage, the 17-year-old had to get parental consent, received it, and signed up with the military. His father insisted he not be put in the infantry and his mother got his pledge to take the GED.  After basic training, he was not sent to technical school, as he expected, but was sent to Roswell with the  509th Operations Group, famed as the  “outfit that dropped the A-bombs” over Japan.  For three months, he was among the group initiating air-to-air (plane to plane) refueling. That took him to England and eastern Canada. That work lasted 1 ½ year.  “It was good, but it was hard work,” he would state.

With the onset of the war in Korea, Jim was completing his three-year commitment when he decided to re-enlist for six years. He successfully got a transfer to Okinawa, where his C-46 unit was tasked with picking up and transporting the bodies of war casualties and unloading troops to Korea.  At age 26, he was back in the States, assigned to El Paso with a Strategic Air Command tanker unit, checking plane engines. Later he worked on B-57 aircraft, with a 1 ½-year assignment to Washington, D.C., “so generals could get qualified in a combat-type nuclear-capable bomber,” he said.

From there, it was back to Japan where he combined his military work with working on a college degree from the University of Maryland.  “I had not had an academic subject for 11 years or so,” he said, noting that he needed to prepare for a career when his discharge came.

On February 9, 1957, he married Madie Jean Tyler, a Japanese woman, he had met earlier in Japan.

Assignments and re-assignments would follow. He earned his degree in 1963, and, now a master sergeant, he was sent to Amarillo, Texas, to an aircraft maintenance instruction school. “As soon as I got through it, instead of them putting me in charge of a unit, I was sitting behind a desk shuffling paper for 14 instructors.  Well, I didn’t like that. Neither my wife nor I liked Amarillo.”

Jim wanted to be at a base where he could apply his mechanics skills, and Williams Air Force Base in Mesa looked like an opportunity. With three years left before he could take his “20 and out” military retirement, Jim took the Arizona assignment.

They found a place to live in Tempe, close enough to ASU to walk. 

“The town was beginning to develop and moved south, and there were some nice-looking houses for sale at very reasonable prices being built,” he said. They bought a three-bedroom house, and Tempe was their new home as Jim finished his military duty. Jim plunged into getting his master’s degree in secondary education, with minors in history and geography with his student teaching at McClintock High School.   Before his retirement, he got a short-time assignment to Wichita Falls, Kansas, working with corporations looking to fill their jobs with veterans.

His civilian teaching began as a student teacher of American history at McClintock High School. He had taken a couple of anthropology courses at ASU and that prompted him to ask the principal, Bill Boyle, to teach an elective course on it.  But about the same time, the State Department of Education began mandating schools to teach Arizona history. Thus, Boyle told Jim to drop the anthropology plan and teach history.  Later, he passed on an offer to be a Marcos de Niza High School department head. Several years later, Jim transferred to Corona del Sol High School to teach geography and set up a geography lab.

He carried out experiments to show the district the need for geography classes. He went to the high schools and administered tests (no names requested) to ascertain what he expected: Test results indeed show students had a weak understanding of geography.

Jim went on for his doctorate from ASU that led to teaching classes at Mesa Community College and then ASU, where he taught for nearly 25 years as an adjunct professor, starting in 1983.  Eight years featured TV teaching. His dissertation looked at mining and mine labor and focused on Henry S. McCluskey, one-time president of the Arizona State Federation of Labor. Jim became active in a mining labor organization and the Mining History Association where he was president and a speaker. Jim was instrumental in helping the ASU Libraries acquire the Arizona AFL-CIO labor records.

For about 25 years, he was active with the Tempe Historical Society, including service on its board.

Well into his 80s, Jim went five days a week to the Tempe YMCA for physical workouts. He died May 9, 2020, at the age of 89.

— Lawn Griffiths