By HELEN ROSS
Suffice it to say, her interest in newspapers was deep-seated, starting with the first publication of the “Garber News.”
Mary Garber was eight years old at the time, tasked with regularly writing letters to her grandparents after her family had moved from Ridgewood, New Jersey to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Instead of missives she considered “dull and boring,” Garber created her own newspaper on a plain sheet of notebook paper, putting headlines on stories about the family dog chasing the cat up a tree or how her sister stepped on a tack and stubbed her toe.
“Anything that you would write ordinarily to a relative, only I did it as a newspaper,” Garber recalled in 1990 during an exhaustive 126-page interview with Diane K. Gentry for the Washington Press Club Foundation’s oral history project, Women In Journalism.
Garber would go on to make journalism her profession, starting work at the age of 24 on the society pages of the Winston-Salem Sentinel after graduating from Hollins College. Her role expanded during World War II as more and more of the men enlisted, and Garber eventually found her way to the sports department in 1944.
Once the war ended, Garber went back to a general assignment beat. But she kept asking sports editor Carlton Byrd for assignments and in 1946, she moved back to sports full-time and never left – eventually retiring in 1986, although she would work part-time for 16 more years.
Her impact on the people who play the games and those of us who write about them was considerable.
Garber, who was a 1996 inductee into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, was a pioneer on several levels. Not only did she pave the way for countless women who wanted to make sportswriting a career, Garber championed the athletes at Winston-Salem’s historically Black high schools and colleges.
Generations knew the diminutive woman frequently attired in that Wake Forest toboggan and tennis shoes simply as “Miss Mary.” She was a fixture at practices and games and press conferences, and she earned the respect of coaches with her inquisitive nature, making regular phone calls – like that 11 a.m. one every Sunday to former N.C. State football coach Earle Edwards -- to pick their brains.
At the same time, Garber, who loved Knute Rockne when she was a kid and wrote letters to -- and got answers from -- Notre Dame football players, had to fight for the right to do her job on equal footing. One of those days came early in her career when the sports information director at Duke wouldn’t allow her to sit in the press box, saying women weren’t allowed and sending her instead to the area where the coaches’ wives and crying babies were sitting.
“And while I was talking with him, there was a little boy hopping up and down on one foot,” Garber remembered what she saw when she looked inside the press box. “I said to the sports information director, ‘Who is he? Is he covering for the Lilliputian Gazette?’ And he didn’t think it was very funny.”
At the Journal-Sentinel, though, Garber had enlightened management. The managing editor wrote to the athletic directors at Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest and said it was the newspapers’ decision who it sent to cover the games and that “when they turned me away, they were turning away the Journal-Sentinel, not me,” she recalled.
So, one problem was solved. But it wasn’t until shortly before she retired that Garber was allowed to go into locker rooms – as her male counterparts routinely did – to gather quotes for her stories. Negotiations with ADs and coaches along with print, television and radio journalists created an orderly process for all involved, not just Garber and the handful of other female reporters at the time.
Before that, Garber relied on the assistance of SIDs, assistant coaches and security guards like John Baker – who once bruised one of her ribs when he wrapped her in a bear hug -- stationed outside the N.C. State locker room to lasso players for her. One of the first times she was able to go inside was in 1974 and Garber was escorted, along with a TV crew, by Eddie Biedenbach, at the time a Wolfpack assistant who is also a member of the NCSHOF.
“He came to me and said, ‘You’ve always wanted to get in the dressing room. Now you can,’” Garber recalled.
Another HOF member, Dave Odom, at the time an assistant to Carl Tacy at Wake Forest, once slipped her into the Deacons’ dressing room during the “cooling off period” after a 9 o’clock ACC Tournament win over UNC where her deadline was tight.
“And when we got in there, he said, ‘Now, Coach Tacy always likes to talk to the players so maybe we’d better step back here in the shower,’” Garber told Gentry. “And that set up, of course, one of my very favorite stories that I tell around Wake Forest today about the time Dave and I were in the shower together. ...
“But Coach Tacy talked to the players and he said, ‘Now Mary is here, and she’s here with my permission. And she only has 10 minutes so when she tries to talk to you, please talk to her.’ And of course, the place was bedlam – the guys were hugging each other and crying and dancing and it was absolutely marvelous. And I got some great quotes and got the real atmosphere of what the dressing room is like immediately after a big win.”
Garber’s coverage of her city’s predominantly Black high schools and Winston-Salem State University was particularly striking during a time when segregation still ruled the South. She developed a particularly strong relationship with the late Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines at WSSU, who preceded her in the NCSHOF.
"There were two different worlds, white and black, and most news about black people ended up on the Sunday newspaper's 'colored page,’” Gaines told Gentry. “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."
There are countless stories of men who kept tattered clippings of articles she wrote in their wallets well into adulthood. Some talked of how they felt her coverage helped them earn scholarships to colleges they might not have been otherwise able to attend. Another told her how he might not have had the confidence to become a doctor.
One Christmas, Garber made crying towels for all the coaches she covered. She was as bullish on writing about athletes in non-revenue sports as she was the moneymakers of football and basketball. She once even helped the student scorer at a high school game get up the nerve to ask a girl out on a date.
Garber won numerous awards for her writing, and her name is forever linked to the trophy the ACC gives to its top female athlete. In 2005, she was the first woman to receive the prestigious Red Smith Award given by the Associated Press Sports Editors Association for contributions to sports journalism.
Her favorite accolade, though? Well, Garber says she heard it second hand from a friend after covering the soap-box derby at Bowman-Gray Stadium. Two young Black kids, probably about 8 or 10, had noticed her on the field and one asked the other if he knew who she was.
“The other boy said no,” Garber told Gentry. “And the first boy said, ‘That's Miss Mary Garber. And she don't care who you are or where you're from or what you are. If you do something, she's going to write about you.’
“And I'd like to have that on my tombstone.”
Garber died in 2008 at the age of 92.
Tag(s): Member of the Month