Mary Garber discovered her guardian angel in the summer of 1947 when she traveled to Brooklyn's Ebbets Field to watch Jackie Robinson. At the time, Garber was a pioneering sportswriter in a male domain, observing the first African-American to play major league baseball. "Jackie became the most important influence in my life," Garber says. "When people would step on me and hurt my feelings, I would look at how he kept his mouth shut and did his job as best he could with the belief that someday he would be accepted."
In the year 2000 Garber is embarking on her seventh decade as a sportswriter in Winston-Salem, N.C., having worked first at the Twin-City Sentinel and now at the Winston-Salem Journal. The job at the Sentinel was thrust upon her near the end of World War II when a teenage boy who produced the sports page after school enlisted in the Navy and there wasn't any man to take his place. After the war Garber began to feel the sting of male chauvinism. In that era the press box was off-limits to women, children and pets. "Once, I was sent to cover a football game at Duke, but they stuck me in the wives' box," Garber recalls. "All through the game the wives blabbed and the kids screamed, and I thought I would lose my mind."
Garber was one of the first women to cover the college football and basketball beats, and there she was often stereotyped by her gender. One day a high school basketball player tore his shorts during a game, and the coach asked Garber to sew them up. Indiana coach Bob Knight interrupted an NCAA tournament press conference to ask Garber if his language was proper. A 1958 Sentinel article reporting Garber's acceptance of a writing award said, "Miss Garber has received nationwide publicity as one of the few full-time female sportswriters. In addition, she bakes a mighty fine cake."
Garber recalls accepting the award and the cooking compliment with equanimity, willing to endure the discrimination because she loved her job. She has interviewed famous sports figures from Vince Lombardi to Chris Evert, from Satchel Paige to Brian Piccolo. She is best known, however, for articles on less prominent figures such as Drew Buie. An undersized running back at a Winston-Salem high school in the early '60s, Buie had no hope of attending college until Garber wrote that he possessed the speed to play receiver. The endorsement earned Buie a football scholarship to Division II Catawba. He eventually played four NFL seasons before returning to North Carolina and becoming a successful high school football coach.
The underdog reporter developed into a champion of the overlooked, chronicling bench warmers and equipment managers as well as stars, and filing many stories about African-American athletes before they were widely accepted in the South. "Nobody cared much about black players 40 years ago, but Miss Mary covered a lot of things that weren't too popular," says former Winston-Salem State basketball coach Clarence (Bighouse) Gaines. "She went out of her way to see that everybody got a fair shake."
Garber says she received her most satisfying compliment while covering a Soap Box Derby in the '50s. She overheard two African-American boys in the bleachers as one kid 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."
The 83-year-old Garber, who has never married, is known to many in her hometown as Miss Mary, and to almost everybody else as "the white-haired little old lady in sneakers." One time a handyman showed up to work on her house and asked, "Is this where Mary Garber lives?" He then opened his wallet and proudly eased out a yellowed newspaper clipping, a Garber article about the handyman's winning a marbles tournament when he was 10 years old.
Garber shed her underdog status in the late 1970s when she was elected president of the ACC Sportswriters Association, which had denied her membership in the '50s. "I appreciate the honor," she said at the podium. "More than anything else, it tells me that I am accepted."
Admitting that she wishes her career were starting rather than finishing in this generation, Garber encourages other female sportswriters, and she's proud of the gradual proliferation of women in her field. "Mary wrote about me when I was an eight-year-old junior tennis player in Winston-Salem, and I've been reading her byline ever since," says Ashley McGeachey, now a sportswriter at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "She has become both a mentor and a friend. I remember thinking, If this petite lady in granny glasses can stand up to an angry coach, why can't I?"
Garber has never considered retiring. In fact, when Bear Bryant died in 1983, less than a month after retiring as Alabama's football coach, Garber stopped by the office of Journal sports editor Terry Oberle and said, "See what happens?" A few years later, at age 70, Garber relinquished her full-time status at the Journal, but at her "retirement" party on Sept. 30, 1986, she ended her remarks by saying, "Thanks for the lovely dinner, but I have to be at work early tomorrow morning, so let's wrap this up."