Mary Garber, well-known nationally as the "Dean of Women Sportswriters", has been a sportswriter for the Winston-Salem (North Carolina) Sentinel and Journal (now combined into the Winston-Salem Journal) since 1944, covering every sport. Though she retired from the strenuous schedule of covering Atlantic Coast Conference football and basketball games four years ago at age seventy, she still works seven days a week covering tennis, small college sports, coaches' conferences and special assignments. The paper has been her life. She has worked for it without interruption since 1940 when she was hired as society editor.
"If Mary wants to work here until she dies, it is fine with me," says her publisher, Joe Doster. "She is a living legend in Winston-Salem and a first-rate PR person for us because she has so many fans and followers. Mary is a lady of great integrity--genuine, competent, fair and concerned. Players, coaches and readers have loved her. We at the newspaper are part of her family."
I met Mary in August 1990 on the first of four trips to Winston-Salem to research her long career and complete five interviews, the last being videotaped in November 1990. I was immediately impressed by the energy of the five-foot dynamo and her love and commitment to her work, which she has no intention of quitting. All of our interviews took place in the living room of Mary's family home, a lovely house full of mementos, where she has lived since she was eight years old when her father moved to Winston-Salem to open his building contracting business. She lives in the home with her younger sister, Cornelia, "Neely," who has supported Mary's career by keeping the house and caring for the aged parents through the years. Neither sister has ever married.
Before interviewing Mary on tape, I talked at length with many people who knew Mary well and could give me insights into different stages of her life and career. Joe Doster, her publisher, was an excellent resource into her newspaper career, her strong points as a journalist, and how she has become a "living legend" in her community and among sports people.
Lib Byrd, widow of Carlton Byrd, Mary's sports editor on the Sentinel for decades, provided personal insights. Lib had known Mary since childhood, lost touch with her in college years, then became a close friend starting in the 1940s when they worked together on the newspaper. "Mary is as dedicated a professional as I have ever known," she says. "Her whole life centers around her job. Carlton got teased about having the only woman sportswriter on his staff for decades, but Mary proved herself. She has so much humanity and the capacity for finding out things about players and coaches that no man ever could or would. Mary has an immense pride in her work and was always careful with facts. Her human interest stories were the best. I think Mary has dedicated her life to making people feel good about themselves."
During the course of reviewing Mary's papers and stories, I read many letters from middle-aged men who wrote to thank her for writing about them in high school and college, bolstering their egos and giving them good advice on everything from career choices to overcoming the fear of going to Vietnam. Throughout her career, Mary took a personal interest in most of the people she wrote about, and their rapport and trust in her is evident in the quality of her stories.
Mary came from a prominent family, but she was interested in everybody. In an era of segregation in the South, Mary was the first white sportswriter on her paper to spend time reporting on black high school and college players. She felt black parents were just as interested in reading about their sons in the newspaper as white parents were. Prior to that, reports on black games were called in by black correspondents, if they were reported at all.
Coach Bighouse Gaines of Winston-Salem University, a black college, remembers Mary's arrival on his campus in the mid-1940s. "There were two different worlds, white and black, and most news about black people ended up on the Sunday newspaper's 'colored page.' We had outstanding athletes here and Mary came to write about them when no one else cared. Mary was always trying to help the underdog. We appreciated that and helped her. She never had any trouble on this campus or any other black school. Mary is loved in the black community in Winston-Salem. She came from an aristocratic background, but she never knew any racial barriers. I think her greatest strength is her positive, honest approach. Most writers show players as big dummies who break the rules. Mary would always look for the good in people."
Being the only woman sportswriter in the region for some thirty years was not easy for Mary. Though she had credentials, she was thrown out of the press box at Duke in 1946 because women weren't allowed there. For years she was barred from all the major sportswriting associations because they did not accept women, then later became president of one and on the board of directors of another. For decades she could never get into the dressing rooms after games like male sportswriters did to witness the excitement of a win or the letdown of a loss, but she learned how to work around the dressing room in a variety of ways and get great stories anyway. Most coaches helped her because they respected her and like her work.
Mary's fifty years in journalism and pioneering sportswriting career give us a fascinating look into women's emergence in the newspaper business in World War II, the segregated South, and a tough lady's quiet triumph over discrimination in a male-dominated sports world. She is an outstanding storyteller whose humanity and love of people radiate throughout the interview.
Diane Koos Gentry
© 1991, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.