Mary Garber

(1916-2008)
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By Dylan Sinn

Mary Garber was a sportswriting pioneer, covering sports in an era when women were not even allowed in the press box let alone in the locker room. She covered black high schools in the segregation-era South and was known for her upbeat writing style.

About This Project

In his 1973 book "No Cheering in the Press Box," author Jerome Holtzman chronicled the lives of the greatest sports journalists of his generation. Four decades later, students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism are updating his work with a series of interviews with the best sports journalists of the last 40 years.

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This chapter was produced by Dylan Sinn.

About Mary Garber
HOMETOWN: New York City
EDUCATION: Hollins College
OCCUPATION: Sportswriter at Twin City Sentinel and Winston-Salem Journal from 1946-2002

Mary Garber was a fan of Jackie Robinson. When she went into semi-retirement in 1986, after over 40 years at the Twin City Sentinel and the Winston-Salem Journal, she compared Robinson’s philosophy to her own, according to Lenox Rawlings of the Journal. Rawlings wrote about Garber for the Journal the day after she died in 2008 and remembered her saying the following of the baseball pioneer:

“He had to take a lot of crap when he came up. His philosophy was: ‘Do the best job you could and keep your mouth shut. People will eventually respect you.' In my case, eventually, people would say, ‘She's all right.' That's all I really wanted." [1]

Lest anyone accuse Garber of speaking with the benefit of hindsight, she had written something similar about Robinson 30 years earlier for the Sentinel.

“There’s no getting around the fact that Robinson met those challenging days [when he integrated baseball] with maturity and courage,” Garber wrote in 1956. “It takes guts to keep your mouth shut and walk away. It is against every normal reaction of human behavior. But Robinson did it.” [2]

“Wake Forest used to issue the tags [saying] ‘No women or children allowed’ and they had a ladies room in the press box,” Garber recalled in a 1990 interview with the Washington Press Club. “I never could quite figure that one out.” [3]

Garber was still breaking down barriers nearly 60 years later. In 2005, she became the first woman to receive the Red Smith Award, given by the Associated Press Sports Editors for outstanding contributions in sports journalism. She remains the only woman to win the award.

During her career, which spanned seven decades, Garber’s work helped inspire a new generation of journalists. Ashley Fox, who now works with ESPN as an NFL analyst, was the subject of a Garber story when she was an 8-year-old tennis player. When Fox was trying to break into sports journalism, Garber was one of her role models.

“I remember thinking, if this petite lady in granny glasses can stand up to an angry coach, why can’t I?” Fox said in the 2016 book on Garber, “Miss Mary Reporting.” [2]

Garber eventually spent 57 years as a sportswriter, working in at least a part-time role until 2002, when she was 86 years old. In 2000, she spoke to Tim Crothers of Sports Illustrated about her career. Garber told Crothers her “most satisfying compliment” came when she was covering the Winston-Salem Soap Box Derby in the 1950s. By her recollection, she heard two young boys talking and one said to the other “See that lady down there? That's Mary Garber. She doesn't care who you are, but if you do something good, she'll write about you." [4]

***

In 1990, at the age of 74, Garber spoke with Diane Gentry of the Washington Press Club Foundation for the Women in Journalism Oral History Project. The septuagenarian journalist spoke with the interviewer for over an hour about her childhood and her time as a journalist. In the interview, which can still be found on CSPAN’s website, she cuts a stately figure, sitting in an ornate high-backed chair with a full bookshelf in the background and her dog at her feet.

Mary Garber was born in New York City, but moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina when she was 8 years old. After the move, her parents had her and her siblings write letters to their grandparents. Garber set her letters up as a newspaper, which she called the “Garber News” and kept her grandparents updated on the family’s events in that way.

After high school, Garber attended Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia. She originally wanted to go to Duke because they had a good football team, but her father convinced her to try to Hollins, which she loved. There, she was editor of the newspaper, which she believed she would not have had the opportunity to be at a bigger school like Duke. “I was a big fish in a very small pond,” she told Gentry.

Garber graduated from Hollins in 1938 and first worked at an after-school program in Winston-Salem because she couldn’t find a job at a newspaper during the Great Depression. She finally got her first job in the journalism industry in 1940 when she was hired as the society editor at the Sentinel for $60 per month.

“At the time I was so happy to be working for a newspaper I would have done anything,” Garber said of her time as society editor. “If they could give me a broom and let me sweep around there I would have done it.”

As World War II began drawing men away from the newspaper, Garber moved over to the news section. She eventually took on the sports editor’s role when the high school boy who had the job previously graduated and joined the Navy. At the time, discrimination against women in the newspaper business was not as prevalent as it would become.

“It wasn’t a question of discriminating against women, because women were doing everything then,” she said of the war years. “It was the only way I would ever have gotten into sports.”

She switched back to news when the war ended, but returned to sports in 1946 and remained there for more than a half-century.

In Garber’s first year covering sports after the war, she ran into some discrimination at the school she originally wanted to attend. She was barred from the press box at a Duke football game because women were not allowed and made to go sit with the players’ and coaches’ wives.

“While I was talking to the sports information director trying to convince him otherwise, there was a little boy about 10 years old hopping up and down in the aisles, and he could sit in there but I couldn’t,” she said.

Garber’s managing editor at the Sentinel eventually stood up for her and she was allowed in the press boxes at major college sporting events. Locker rooms, however, were a different story. For decades, Garber’s job was complicated because she was barred from the men’s locker rooms after games, while her male colleagues had admission.

“You sort of had to [find ways to work around it],” Garber said of her lack of access. “There wasn’t any question. When the game was over, I knew I couldn’t go into the dressing room, so I had to work out things.”

Early in her career, she brought along male high school football coaches to college sporting events with her. After the game, she’d give the high school coach her press credential and send him into the locker room to ask questions. Then she’d write her story off of what he told her.

Later she got some help from Horace “Bones” McKinney, who was Wake Forest’s basketball coach from 1958-1965. McKinney helped reverse the trend of coaches holding press conferences in the locker room, in deference to Garber.

“One time when I was at Wake Forest talking to Bones, he said ‘You know I’ve been unfair to you and I’m not going to ever be unfair to you again,’ Garber recalled. “Well Bones had been very kind to me and very cooperative, so I couldn’t figure anything he’d done that could’ve hurt me.

“And he said, ‘I promise you one thing: from now on I will always have my postgame conferences outside of the dressing room. And he did. And once he started it all the other coaches did it, too. So that solved one big problem.”

Early in her career, Garber was also denied admittance to the Atlantic Coast Conference Sportswriters Association and the Football Writers Association of America because she was a woman. Eventually, a paperwork snafu accidentally added her to the ACCSA membership and the group’s board allowed her to stay. Later in her career, she would serve as the president of the ACCSA, and on the board of directors for the FWAA.

“I think it was kind of like when a boys gang runs around and little sister goes along with them, and they try to send her home and she won’t get discouraged and finally they decide well let’s put her out in the outfield, and don’t send her home and just accept her,” Garber said of her experience with the sportswriters associations. [3]

When she was named president of the ACCSA, she said in her acceptance speech, “I appreciate the honor. More than anything else it tells me that I am accepted.” [4]

Garber’s place as a rare woman in a male-dominated field also helped shape her personal writing style. She became known for eschewing overly critical analysis and writing as positively as she could, especially about high school players.

“[High school players] are so easily hurt,” she said of the reasoning behind her writing style. “After all they’re just kids, they’re not professionals, they’re not getting paid for what they do.”

However, in addition to her compassion for the players, she also tried to write positively because doing so would keep her away from controversy that might cause people to question why her paper employed a woman as a sportswriter.

“There was absolutely nothing that required [my paper] to have me as a woman sportswriter,” she said. “And I just felt that if I made a lot of trouble or made a lot of waves or anything like that, they might just decide it wasn’t worth it, because I know they got enough flack as it was.”

While facing her own prejudice in the workplace, Garber never hesitated to cover those facing prejudices in the sports world. When schools were still segregated in the South, she eagerly covered black high school sporting events, especially those at Atkins High School in Winston-Salem. Most of the time she was the only reporter at the game.

“It seemed to me that black parents were just as interested in what their kids were doing as white parents were,” she said. “These were good kids, these were nice kids. I enjoyed being around them.

“It’s only since I’ve gotten older that those who were students then have become adults, and so many of them have told me how they would sit on the bench and keep watching the gate to see if I was coming in. If I had realized at the time how important it was to them, I think it would have been frightening, to have it mean that much.” [3]

During her career, Garber became a close friend of Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines, the legendary basketball coach at Winston-Salem State University, a historically black college.

“Nobody cared much about black players 40 years ago, but Miss Mary [what many people called Garber] covered a lot of things that weren't too popular," Gaines told Crothers for the Sports Illustrated story. "She went out of her way to see that everybody got a fair shake." [4]

Garber said that at times it was difficult for her to maintain her faith in her own abilities in the face of the prejudices she met on a routine basis.

“The only thing that’s bad about prejudice, and it’s true of women, or males or athletes or whatever, when someone has a prejudice against you, it can’t help but maybe destroy your confidence a little in yourself,” Garber said. “When someone says, ‘Hey you can’t do this,’ all of a sudden you start thinking to yourself, ‘Well maybe I can’t,’ and you have to keep telling yourself, ‘Sure I can, these people don’t know what they’re talking about.’ And sometimes it gets a little hard.” [3]

***

Garber persevered through everything and became one of the premier sportswriters in the country. Today, the Association for Women in Sports Media gives out the annual Mary Garber Pioneer Award, for “those who have paved the way and serve as role models for women in sports media.” [5]

When she died in 2008, the Journal published a collection of stories about its beloved sportswriter from her colleagues at the paper. Garber’s sports editor, Terry Oberle recalled

“Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, the legendary coach at the University of Alabama, died Jan. 26, 1983, 28 days after coaching his last game. He had been forced to retire by Alabama law. Mary was also facing mandatory retirement from the Journal that April at 67. The day Bryant died, she walked into my office, said, ‘See what happens?’ and walked away.” [6]

Garber went on to work for 19 more years.

Footnotes

1. Rawlings, L. (2008, September 22). Mary Garber stood very tall in a man's world. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from http://www.journalnow.com/news/local/mary-garber-stood-very-tall-in-a-man-s-world/article_bb76a1ef-eb22-594f-98d5-c08c3b40571a.html

2. Macy, S., & Payne, C. F. (2016). Miss Mary reporting: the true story of sportswriter Mary Garber. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

3. Mary Garber Oral History Interview [Video file]. (1990, November 04). Retrieved November 27, 2017, from https://www.c-span.org/video/?299875-1/mary-garber- oral-history-interview-part-1

4. Crothers, T. (2000, March 20). Miss Mary's History Lesson. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved November 27, 2017 from https://www.si.com/vault/2000/03/20/276816/miss- marys-history-lesson-mary-garbers-inspiration-during-a-56-year-sportswriting- career-has-been-jackie-robinson

5. Mary Garber Pioneer Award. (2017). Retrieved November 27, 2017, from http://awsmonline.org/2017-convention/mary-garber-pioneer-award/

6. JournalNow Staff. (2008, September 22). Everybody has a 'Mary story'. Winston-Salem Journal. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from http://www.journalnow.com/news/local/everybody-has-a-mary- story/article_2cb5e69a-df7d-5056-ad04-5b27c5fc94f2.html

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