Although his first television job was a case of mistaken identity, John Mahaffey made a successful career in front of the camera.
Mahaffey, a longtime face and voice of Baton Rouge television news, died early Friday after a brief illness. He was 77.
A native of Texarkana, Texas, whose father was a newspaper editor and mother a newspaper reporter, Mahaffey worked at television stations in Texas before coming to WAFB-TV in 1970. He joined WBRZ-TV seven years later to anchor the nightly newscast, and remained there until retiring on May 28, 1999.
His daughter, Merilee Mahaffey, of Baton Rouge, said he died at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center following surgery for a tumor in his bladder.
Margaret Lawhon, who worked at WBRZ from 1985 until 1999, said Mahaffey was made for his job.
“John was just the consummate news anchor,” Lawhon said. “He had a quality about him that just lit up the screen. It’s one of those intangibles that you either have it or you don’t, and he had it in abundance. He had it just to overflowing. When the cameras came on, when the lights came on, he was all there and he was supercharged. You just don’t find that quality in a lot of people.”
That was discovered by accident, according to the story Mahaffey told his colleagues about how he got his start.
John Spain, who hired Mahaffey at WBRZ when Spain was the station’s news director, said Mahaffey enjoyed saying how he had shown up to a Texas station hoping to get hired as a camera operator.
“There was a big misunderstanding among management, because at the same time they were looking for a cameraman, they were looking for somebody to go on the air,” Spain said. “When he showed up, the manager said, ‘Well, you’re late, but let’s go.’ They put him on the air, and it all worked out well. I’m not sure he ever told them the truth.
“He was successful everywhere he was. He was phenomenal. The ratings were always good whether he was on Channel 9 or Channel 2. … He was a serious news guy. He loved the business. He loved going after the big stories.”
His former colleagues remember Mahaffey’s kindness and sense of humor. Merilee Mahaffey remembers his ability to make funny faces, and how he would use them to try to get WBRZ’s sports director, Mike Rhodes, to crack up while on the air.
Mahaffey became a father figure to younger reporters at WBRZ, Spain said, dispensing both financial help and advice.
“The part that came across on the screen that made him so successful was not just his ability to tell a great story but it was also the reason we loved him so much in the newsroom. He was funny and had a big heart. He cared deeply about people. Even on a tough, tough day, John Mahaffey’s presence in the newsroom made the day better.”
Mahaffey worked in Austin, Corpus Christi and Amarillo, Texas, before coming to Baton Rouge. While news director at KIII in Corpus Christi, he was one of the youngest television executives in the state.
“He grew up in Texas and went to the University of Texas, but once he moved to Baton Rouge, that was home to him,” Merilee Mahaffey said. “He said something like … chicken-fried steak had been replaced by crawfish é touffé e. This was his true home, and he loved it.”
Mahaffey also is survived by a sister, Prudence Mackintosh, of Dallas. Funeral arrangements are pending.