James L. McLain, 98, an organist and choir director who founded the Music Department at American University, died Sept. 5 at the ManorCare nursing home in Bethesda of complications of a stroke. He was a longtime Bethesda resident.
Mr. McLain was teaching voice students until shortly before his death and playing the organ at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Bethesda until about six months ago.
He founded the AU Chorus after he arrived at the university in 1934. According to Daniel Abraham, the university's director of music, the chorus is one of the oldest continuing arts organizations in the Washington area.
Although AU didn't have a music program when Mr. McLain arrived, his singers wanted to know more about music, Mr. McLain recalled in a 1974 interview.
"I actually went to the dean and said, 'Is it all right if I offer a music course?' " he said. "Well, that's the way the department developed. And, of course, in those days, it was a matter of, 'Well, sure, you can offer it. You won't get paid for it, but you can offer it.' "
Over the next several years, Mr. McLain began building a music department, raising most of the funds himself. The fledgling department was housed at various times in empty woodsheds, garages and any vacant buildings Mr. McLain could find on campus.
His successor at AU, Vito Mason, recalled that Mr. McLain taught music appreciation, theory, sight reading, keyboard, harmony and other music classes, along with administering the department. He eventually became a full professor of music.
Mason recalled that for many years, it was a two-person department, Mr. McLain and Gordon Smith. As chairman, Mr. McLain relied on musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra and other groups to teach part time until the early 1950s, when the department began to grow. In the 1960s, AU opened the Kreeger Music Building, now the home of the university's Department of Performing Arts and its music, dance, theater and arts management programs.
Mr. McLain retired in 1974.
He was born in Baltimore, the son of a Methodist minister. He made his musical debut at age 3, playing piano while his father's congregation sang "America the Beautiful."
He received his bachelor's degree from George Washington University in the late 1920s -- in English literature, because GWU didn't have a music program at the time. He went on to study music, voice and piano at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and pursued private voice and organ studies in New York. He also was an organist for a church in New Jersey.
"I've always had a good ear for music and can play by ear," Mr. McLain told The Washington Post in 2001. "I think I know every hymn that's ever been written."
In addition to his work at AU, he was organist and choir director at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, across from the AU campus, for nearly 28 years. He retired from his church position in 1977.
In 1987, he took what was supposed to be a two-week position as organist and choirmaster at Trinity Presbyterian Church. That position lasted nearly 17 years. He also taught an AU music course for retirees as a founding member of the Institute for Learning in Retirement.
In 1996, Mr. McLain conducted the AU choral organizations for the last time when, at a reunion of AU singers, all eight of the choral conductors in the history of the university returned to conduct a gala concert.
Mr. McLain's wife, Martha McLain, died in 1992.
Survivors include two daughters, Linda Anderson of Sequim, Wash., and Susan McLain of Bethesda; and two grandchildren.
"I can't think of living without music," Mr. McLain told The Post three years ago. "It's part of me. It's deep in my soul."