Michelle Kaufman

A sportswriter's letter to her daughter

Dear Sophie,

I am writing to tell you about a remarkable, brave woman whose biography you won't find on the third-grade bookshelves alongside the inspiring stories of Helen Keller, Clara Barton, Rosa Parks and Amelia Earhardt.

Her name was Mary Garber, and she died last Sunday at age 92 in a nursing home in Winston-Salem, N.C. She wasn't as well-known as those other women, but she deserves to be remembered by young girls everywhere because she followed her heart and dared to be different. If it weren't for her, your mom might not be a sportswriter.

''Miss Mary,'' as she came to be known, started covering sports in 1944, back when women weren't allowed to do that job, when press passes for football and basketball games read: ''No women or children allowed.'' But Miss Mary was a huge sports fan, determined to write about her passion, and though she was tiny (just under 5 feet tall), she wasn't afraid to stand out in a crowd.

When she was 8 years old, just like you, she played quarterback on her neighborhood football team. She also loved softball and tennis. When she was a teenager and friends were hanging up posters of movie stars, Mary was writing fan letters to Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne.

In 1940, after college, she got a job at the Twin City (N.C.) Sentinel writing for the society page, covering fashion, parties and home decorating. It's one of the few places female journalists were offered jobs at the time. But shortly thereafter, as the men of the newsroom left to fight in World War II, the newspaper found itself in need of sportswriters. Miss Mary happily volunteered. When the war ended and the men returned, she went back to the society pages. But she kept pushing to cover her passion, and after a year her editor allowed her to return to sports.

And that's where she stayed -- for more than 50 years -- first at that newspaper and then at the Winston-Salem Journal. For three decades she was the only woman covering Atlantic Coast Conference sports. She sometimes had to sit in the stands with the coaches' wives, but she didn't complain. She wasn't allowed to interview players in the locker room like the male sportswriters, so she waited patiently outside. She got a lot of mean letters and phone calls from readers, but she didn't let that discourage her, either.

Miss Mary was among the first white sportswriters to cover black high schools and colleges. She was beloved on those campuses and was even known to mend torn uniforms before games. In later years, when black sportswriters began breaking into the field, Garber always extended a helping hand.

''Nobody cared much about black players 40 years ago, but Miss Mary covered a lot of things that weren't too popular,'' former Winston-Salem State basketball coach Clarence ''Big House'' Gaines told Sports Illustrated in 2000. ``She went out of her way to see that everybody got a fair shake.''

Garber would have it no other way.

''When I started working in sports fulltime, it seemed to me that black parents were as interested in what their kids were doing as white parents were,'' she said in a 1990 interview for the Women in Journalism oral history project of the Washington Press Club Foundation.

In 2005, Garber became the first woman to win the Associated Press Sports Editors Red Smith Award, a prestigious prize for contributions to sports journalism. She couldn't attend the ceremony because she was, in her words, ''on the disabled list'' in the nursing home, but she recorded a moving acceptance speech.

She thanked her newspaper editors for giving her a chance during WWII. 'And there was no Civil Rights law saying women had to be treated just like men. They did it because they thought it was the fair thing to do, and believe me, they took a lot of flak for it. Papers around the state asked, `Why start trouble by having a woman write sports?' ''

She dedicated the award to all her ''sister'' sportswriters, praising them for covering all the beats her generation of women never got the chance to cover. Finally, she said she was accepting it the award ``in the name of all the young girls around the country who may be dreaming of doing something women have never done before. This is to show them that the opportunity is there for them, if they just take it and go for it.''

I had the privilege of meeting this incredible woman at a convention of the Association for Women in Sports Media, which several years ago named its Pioneer Award in Garber's honor. She entertained us with tales of her journey and challenged us to keep up the fight. I owe her a debt of gratitude.

Maybe some day Garber's biography will be on the school bookshelf. In the meantime, if the topic of courageous women ever comes up in your classroom, or on the soccer field, be sure to mention Miss Mary.