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James McQuillen ’86

Photo by Matt Giraud '85

September 13, 2020, in Portland, from liver failure.

James was a self-made man: someone with a stubborn determination not to be made by others, but to make himself—to learn, experience, and master on his own terms every nuance of the world he encountered. 

And do it wearing shorts if at all possible.

James grew up in Charlotte, Vermont, with two brothers and two sisters deep in the Red Sox Nation. Their parents were both doctors, his father a neurologist, his mother a forensic pathologist.

After becoming valedictorian of Champlain Valley Union High School, James entered Reed in 1982, where he majored in Russian, edited the Quest, played rugby, and picked up enviable amounts of Greek, French, Latin, and Sanskrit. After college he taught English in Tokyo and mastered Japanese with astonishing speed.

To, from, and after Asia, James packed in as much exploration and travel as he could. He walked the Camino de Santiago with scallop shells in his pocket, no doubt savoring to himself the English translation of the pilgrimage as “the Way of St. James.” On another trip, he befriended some villagers in Syria whose hospitality included showing him how to fire an Uzi. That macho gun culture was so completely out of his character made it even more delightful to him, and a blurry picture of him unloading a magazine into a hillside was one of his most treasured mementos. 

Back in the United States, he hatched a plan with Bill Fitch ’86 to bicycle from Skagway, Alaska, through the Yukon and Northwest Territories to Inuvik, Canada, an amulet’s throw from the Beaufort Sound. Their trip back up the Mackenzie River was foiled by a strike, so they called in a favor, and Sohrab Gollogly ’93 packed them into his single-engine plane for his first solo flight. Their 11-hour flight hopscotched them over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and stunning scenery James would never forget.

Back in Portland, James began working at Powell’s Travel Store, quickly charting a course to head map buyer in what was then the largest travel book and map store in the United States. Soon his knowledge of the world’s far corners won him writing contracts for travel guides including Fodor’s, Northwest Best Places, and 1000 Places to See before You Die.

Around this time, he also began working at Portland’s iconic Vat and Tonsure restaurant, where he was waiter, chef, and, after hours, player of a devastating game of chess. Steeped in classical music and opera, and boasting one of the city’s broadest and most eclectic wine lists (in addition to a jeroboam of Reedies behind the counter), the Vat propelled James down three new paths of discovery: wine, writing, and music.

For example, not content to understand wine from only one side of the cork, James and Matt Giraud ’85 started making it together in 1994. That collaboration ultimately blossomed into Les Garagistes, a 30-family amateur winemaking collective featured in Fine Cooking, the Oregonian, and Willamette Week. The collective celebrated its 26th vintage last fall.

His knowledge of wine from grape to glass also grew into “The Crush,” a column on wine and wine culture James and Matt coauthored in Willamette Week. During their 5-year span as columnists, James also rose to become assistant arts and culture editor at the paper.

The soundtrack for all of this, since his first stunned encounter of a Mozart piano sonata by Mitsuko Uchida in the late ’80s, was classical music. After Willamette Week, James moved to the Oregonian, where he wrote about classical music, commenting with style and insight.

He also joined Cantores in Ecclesia and sang before the pope in the International Palestrina Competition in 1997. Cantores won several gold medals that trip, but James would wryly note the biggest accolade was glancing over to see the aged pontiff going “wild with appreciation”—and here, James would stiffen and slightly move his right hand.

But in the end, no other study or subject could compare to the passion he put into raising his two daughters, Maura and Siobhán. The love he felt at their birth “was like being tasered by God,” he once wrote, and seeing their rapt attention when he read Moby Dick to them at bedtime redeemed the world. —Contributed by Matt Giraud ’85

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2021

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