Joe McClain: A townie with an impact

Joe McClain, owner and proprietor of Joe’s International Airport bar in Mount Vernon from 1976–2002, was remembered upon his death Jan. 25 as a father figure and mentor to scores of Cornellians. He gave them jobs, rented them apartments, taught them his business philosophy, and lent an ear when the students he knew hit bumpy times.

Joe McClain beams as graduates make a final trip to Joe’s on Commencement day 1989.

Joe’s was a favorite among Cornellians, both as a place to work and a place to congregate.

“Joe provided a place for everyone to come together, regardless of their differences,” remembered Raymie Juchems ’89. “All social groups came together at Joe’s, and everyone became friends with one another.”

McClain served in the Green Berets from 1962-1968 and came to Mount Vernon to run Cornell’s food service, having held similar positions at four other colleges. He volunteered as a Mount Vernon firefighter for 10 years and enjoyed his time playing poker, golfing, and working in his garden.

“For many, Joe was a true father figure, a stand-in for dads who were too far away or not available,” wrote Cornell sociology professor Tori Barnes-Brus ’97.

Brett Muck ’97 and Candy Black Werth ’89 are working with the college to create a scholarship fund in memory of McClain.

“He provided advice, guidance, friendship, and an occasional kick in the butt,” wrote Werth, who worked for McClain during her time at Cornell and law school. “He taught us responsibility. I thought my relationship with Joe was special, but then I realize Joe made us all feel special.”

Muck’s favorite McClain memory is from a bartender reunion in 2001.

“The plan was to arrive, one by one, through the after-noon or evening and wait for Joe to realize the bar was full of former employees,” he recalled. “We had arranged for The Gazette to do a story and, ultimately, this was how we told Joe about the reunion. The [reporter’s] final question was ‘how does it feel to have all these former employees come back to honor you?’ He began providing an explanation for why everyone was in the bar, only to realize we had pulled a fast one on him. Joe literally sat on the floor in the middle of the bar in amazement.”

McClain’s family acknowledged the special place Cornell students held in his heart, including this in his obituary: “Joe was proud of the favorable influence and training he provided for many college students throughout his career.”

For more information or to make a gift to the Joe McClain Scholarship, please contact Kristi Webster Columbus ’96 at or 319.895.4202.