Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Mary L. Nock (1903-1987)
MSA SC 3520-12321

Biography:

Mary Layfield Nock was a Maryland state legislator, serving in the House of Delegates and later the State Senate, for almost three decades. First elected to the House of Delegates in 1946, Nock entered politics when the field was almost completely dominated by men, yet this did not deter her progress as a politician. Nock made history as the first woman elected a State Senator from the Eastern Shore and the second woman ever elected to the State Senate, and she repaid her constituents by always considering their best interests when she cast her votes in Annapolis. Never swaying from the values she held most important, Mary Layfield Nock was a key figure to the Eastern Shore and to Maryland.
 
Mary Layfield was born on September 3, 1903, on the banks of the Wicomico River about fifteen miles southwest of Salisbury. Layfield was born in a time in which life consisted of “going to one, or two-room schools, church on Sunday and helping with the crops and household chores.”1 She was also raised with the values and virtues of the Victorian era, which would greatly affect the legislative decisions she made in the future. Layfield continued her education for a year after completing high school and attended the Beacom Business College in Salisbury, Maryland. She always dreamt of teaching, but her parents did not permit her to attend Towson Normal School since they lacked the funds and the school was from home.2 Her first job after business college was as a secretary, but Layfield knew she was interested in politics from a very young age. She moved to Salisbury with her family in 1920, and attended her first political meeting at the Wicomico Hotel a few years later. Layfield cast her first ballot in 1924, when she was first able to legally vote. A year later, she married Garland Nock, a Salisbury contractor.3

Nock began a life in politics thanks to her family connections. Her maternal aunt was the secretary for David J. Ward, Vice President of the Salisbury Motor Company, and Nock’s aunt asked her to take over her position upon her engagement. Nock worked for Ward as his secretary until 1932 when he was elected to the State Senate. Ward asked Nock to follow him to Annapolis for an emergency thirty-day session, and Nock agreed. She “sometimes sat in the balcony when the Senate was in session and watched the proceedings so that [she] could better understand the work [she] was doing for Mr. Ward.”4 Nock worked as Ward’s secretary in Annapolis for seven years, until he was elected to the United States Congress as a Representative in 1940. She expected her political work to end, but Ward asked her to go to Washington, D.C. with him as one of his secretaries there. Nock accepted this position, and began her job as secretary to a Congressman in the bustling city. She served as a secretary to Congressman Ward for almost six years, but when Ward was defeated in the 1944 primary, her political work came to a close.5

Nock had always worked outside the home up until this point in her life, and after finishing her tenure as Ward’s secretary, she “was determined to be a housewife and stay home” and “also planned to commit herself to serving the Salisbury community through various civic endeavors.”6 She, however, was not pleased with her new life, and confided with her husband her longing to return to the busy lifestyle she experienced when working in politics. Her husband was very supportive and encouraged her to run for office, even though it was after World War II and during a time where women were instructed to surrender their jobs to returning soldiers. Nock entered her name in the 1946 election for the House of Delegates as a Democratic candidate from Wicomico County. Twelve men and Nock ran for the seat. Despite the prevailing gender roles of the time period, very little comments were publicly said about a woman running for a political office. Nock was a very qualified candidate due to her many years of political work with David Ward, and she also reigned from a well-established Wicomico County family, which undoubtedly made her campaign easier.7 Nock won the primary election and also won enough votes in the November 1946 general election to be sent to the House of Delegates in Annapolis. Two other women were elected to the House that year.8

In 1947, Nock did not introduce many bills, but she was placed on the Ways and Means Committee, which was an honor for a freshman legislator. Although she was a member of a prestigious committee, it is possible that Nock was at a disadvantage because of her gender. While some male legislators completely deny that female legislators faced discrimination during the late 1940s, women were not permitted in the dining room where the men ate lunch, which created “the suspicion that legislation might have been discussed and decided upon during those ‘sessions’ closed to women lawmakers.”9 Nock, however, never hinted that she faced any discrimination or bias because of her gender. She continued her duties as a member of the House of Delegates, and her first bill to successfully become a law was in 1949.

Nock earned her reputation as the “Victorian legislator” that adhered to her held values regarding morality in 1949. In early 1949, another Wicomico County delegate sponsored a bill that would permit movies to be shown and baseball to be played on Sundays during times when church services were not usually held. Local ministers opposed the bill due to its “commercialization of the Lord’s Day.” Nock was one of two delegates to vote against the bill, cementing her reputation as the champion of morality for her constituents. For the rest of 1949, and for much of her duration as a member of the House of Delegates, Nock did not sponsor many pieces of legislation. While a lack of sponsored legislation could have been detrimental to her reputation, Nock was highly regarded by her constituents of the Eastern Shore. Unlike many other members of the House of Delegates, Nock did not hold another job when the legislature was not in session, meaning those she represented were here top priority. For Nock, “politics were her life and during the months when the legislature was not in session, [she] talked to and listed to her constituents. She sought out the farmer, the businessman, and the clergy among others, to ask what they wanted from the state government. In the end, she was as loyal to them as they were to her.”10 Therefore, when Nock ran for the State Senate in 1954, her wonderful reputation trumped her legislative record.
 

When Nock was sworn in as the new State Senator from Wicomico County in January 1955, she was the only woman in the chamber. Nock, however, was not the first woman elected to the State Senate, nor was she the first woman from the Eastern Shore to sit in that body, but she made political history by becoming the first woman from the Eastern Shore elected to the State Senate.

Nock’s first committee assignments as a State Senator were to the Finance Committee and the Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee, where she served as Vice-Chairman.11 During her first term as a senator, Nock became an enemy of the State Roads Commission (SRC). For years, the Commission lobbied the legislature to pass a bill that would grant them at least $50 million to improve or build new roads in the state. In 1953, when one plan was introduced, Wicomico County was not categorized as an area that needed extensive road work. In 1955, however, the county had grown, and the State Roads Commission felt that highways were needed. Nock was did not agree with the SRC and adamantly opposed their plan. She insisted that “Wicomico County was ‘largely agricultural and there is no need for this type of road.’” She also worried that the new highways would cut farms in half and add a burden to the farmers when attempting to plow their fields.12 Nock introduced her own bill that would disallow limited access roads in Wicomico County, and while the bill was passed by the Senate, it died in the House.13 She continued to fight against the SRC for the rest of the legislative session in an attempt to curb their power, and while her actions may appear as belligerent, she was simply doing what she believed was best for her constituents.

 
In 1958, Nock was re-elected to the Senate, and, in 1959, she finally found her stride as a legislator. Nock introduced thirty-three bills that were signed into law by Governor Millard Tawes. These bills were “aimed at housecleaning and modernizing the code of her county.”14 Nock also solidified her role as a defender of public education during the 1960s. In 1960, Nock, along with another Eastern Shore Senator, introduced a resolution that called for a new study of Maryland’s school financing system. The resolution declared that the current school financing plan dated back to 1947, and that it was obsolete due to the emergence of new urban areas. According to their joint-resolution, “since 1947, the State has, year after year, increased the amount of aid it gives to the subdivisions for school purposes, and the State is now paying tens of millions of dollars more a year to bolster teachers’ salaries than it was paying in the late 1940s.” For this reason, there was a need for a “complete new evaluation of the philosophy and practice of the financing of the public school system.”15

 
In the Spring of 1961, the legislature approved Joint Resolution 29 which authorized Governor Tawes to appoint a commission to study the possible ways of expanding public higher education in Maryland, and Nock was named to it. Since the commission was headed by John Curlett, president of the Baltimore School Board, the group was referred to as the “Curlett Commission.” Nock, along with nine others, spent much of 1961 and 1962 planning measures to develop the colleges and universities in the state.16 Such a plan was needed because, according to the commission, the projected number of undergraduates attending public colleges in Maryland would increase by 125% by 1975.17 This potential massive increase in the number of students attending public universities required an overhaul of the university system and a creation of a cohesive plan that would facilitate the expanding number of students.

 
A little more than a year later, the Curlett Commission released its three-tiered plan describing the progress path of higher education in the state. The plan declared that “the University of Maryland, ‘capstone’ of the system, which would continue to share responsibility for undergraduate education and would fill the ‘special’ functions of providing graduate and professional education and of being the chief academic research agency of the State.” The commission also determined that the five State Teachers’ Colleges of Bowie, Coppin, Frostburg, Salisbury, and Towson “would become four-year State colleges. Each would be converted ‘whenever it is feasible’ into a full-fledged liberal arts college, offering general undergraduate education but with particular emphasis on teacher education. Some might offer graduate work leading to a master’s degree.” These colleges, along with Morgan State College, “would be placed under the supervision of a new nine-member State College Board of Trustees.” Finally, “the network of two-year community colleges now being developed would prepare some students for additional work at four-year institutions and provide training in subprofessional and technical fields for others.” The report also noted that this plan would require the state to spend much more on higher education than the $43 million a year it spent in the past.18

 
The Curlett Plan was heard in front of the General Assembly in late January 1963 and it received “overwhelming support” from many important figures related to higher education in Maryland. The Maryland Teachers Association, the Maryland Association of School Superintendents, and the Maryland division of the American Association of University Women supported the proposal. Dr. Elkins, president of the University of Maryland, said that the plan was “a landmark in higher education in Maryland.” Dr. Pullen, the state schools superintendent, and Dr. Earle T. Hawkins, president of Towson State Teachers College and also representative to the five teachers colleges, also approved of the plan.19 The plan passed through both houses of the state legislature and was signed into law by Governor Tawes on February 26, 1963.20 As chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Nock was very instrumental in the reorganization of the public colleges in the State of Maryland, providing opportunities for adults to continue their education beyond high school.

 
When she concluded her work on the Curlett Plan, Nock returned to focusing her legislative efforts on Wicomico County. In March 1963, she introduced a bill that would ban all pinball machines in Wicomico County. The General Assembly legalized pinball machines in Wicomico County in the 1959 legislative session, but Nock claimed that the sheriff of Wicomico County and the Salisbury chief of police felt that “the passage of the bill four years ago has greatly hampered the enforcement of the anti-gambling statues in that evidence of pay-offs for ‘free games’ is almost impossible to obtain.”21 Once again, Nock stepped up as the defender of her constituents’ morality. For the next few years, Nock maintained a quiet role in the Senate, however, she still served as president pro tem of the body. In 1965, Nock faced one of her most difficult legislative defeats when she proposed to expand the Senate to thirty-eight members and to keep the districts of the Eastern Shore together by counties, rather than some other division. Her plan failed, and the Eastern Shore was reapportioned to cut its number of legislators, therefore affecting its legislative power in the General Assembly.22 Nock was safe from the threats of reapportionment in the 1960s, but the constant reapportionment of the Eastern Shore eventually threatened her chance of re-election.

 
After Nock was re-elected to the Senate in 1966, she once again focused around advancing educational opportunities for all students. In February 1967, Nock expressed the need for a community college located in the lower-Eastern Shore area. She wrote a resolution calling for a committee to investigate the matter, which passed. In 1967, Nock established the foundation for what would eventually become Wor-Wic Community College.23 Nock also pushed legislation in 1969 that involved the funding and building of a center for the mentally challenged of the Eastern Shore. The proposed 1970 budget allocated $4.53 million to construct a regional mental retardation center in Salisbury, and this money was eventually used to construct the Holly Center in Salisbury.

 

Nock was once again elected to the Senate in 1970, and served another term as president pro tem. The legislative session in 1971 was relatively quiet for Nock, but the 1972 one was very hectic. She voted against a liberal bingo bill that was eventually passed, and also voted against bringing the lottery to Maryland, which too was passed by the Senate.24 Reapportionment also was a problem for Nock, and her worst fear became her reality when the new districts drawn for the Eastern Shore cut across county lines. 1972 was an overall defeat, but the 1973 session looked much better than the previous year after Governor Marvin Mandel named Nock to another statewide commission to study education in the state.25 Nock, however, was forced to end her session in Annapolis early after breaking her pelvis when attacked by two purse snatchers. She recovered well and returned to Annapolis in 1974, where she experienced some victories and some defeats. The Wicomico County Council approved a study to investigate the need for a technical school in the county, which eventually satisfied Nock’s goal of opening a community college in the lower Eastern Shore. 1974 may have been another quiet year for Nock in the legislature, and it would unfortunately be her last.

 
Nock announced in June 1974 that she would run for re-election. Her opponent was E. Homer White, Jr., the director of the Eastern Region of Field and Services for the Motor Vehicle Administration.26 For this campaign, Nock employed her traditional method of stressing her reputation as a Shore Senator and a full-time legislator. Both White and Nock were long-time Wicomico residents and legislators, which made them long-time political rivals. White led one section in Wicomico County’s Democratic Party, while Nock ran the other.27 These two factions earned the informal titles of “Christians” and “Sinners.” The “Christians” supported Nock due to her constant protection of morality, while the “Sinners” supported White and his many pieces of legislation that repealed the State’s blue laws.28 Election Day came, and Nock shockingly lost to White by a mere 240 votes.29 Nock’s almost three decade-long run in the Maryland legislature had closed. After she ended her time in the legislature, she served on the Rosenberg Commission in 1975. This commission recommended the creation of a State Board for Higher Education to “coordinate the state’s public and private colleges and universities.”30 Nock was appointed to the new board in 1976 and once again in 1980.


Mary Layfield Nock died in May 1987 at the age of 83 from a long bout with leukemia. Nock had a long run in the Maryland legislature during a time when women were not usually elected, showing that women all over the nation had the potential to be fantastic politicians. Setting history in Maryland as the first female State Senator elected from the Eastern Shore, Nock devoted her life to ensuring the best for her constituents. She also focused heavily on reforming all public school institutions so they could operate effectively and efficiently, making her an expert in education. She never swayed from her values and was dedicated to her causes, making her an ideal candidate for the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.

1. Mary Layfield Nock, "It was a Joy and a Pleasure," 1. Return to text

2. Ibid 5. Return to text 

3 Mary S. Lewis, “Mary Layfield Nock, 1903--: Lawmaker,” in Notable Maryland Women, ed. Winifred G. Helmes, Ph.D. (Cambridge: Tidewater Publishers, 1977), 247. Return to text

4. Nock 10. Return to text

5. Ginger McClain Beningo, “Mary Layfield Nock: A Woman of Politics,” 25. Return to text

6. Ibid. Return to text 

7. Beningo 31. Return to text

8. Beningo 34-5. Return to text 

9. Beningo 42. Return to text 

10. Beningo 56. Return to text

11. Beningo 74-5. Return to text 

12. Beningo 80-1. Return to text 

13. Beningo 82. Return to text

14. “Tawes To Sign Billboard Curb; Action Also Due On State’s Witness Measure,” Baltimore Sun, March 3, 1959. Return to text 

15. “Study Asked On Financing Of Schools; Resolution Seeks New Evaluation Of Laws Governing System,” Baltimore Sun, February 23, 1960. Return to text

16. Beningo 119. Return to text

17. Beningo 120. Return to text

18. James S. Keat, “Study Asks Colleges’ Revamping; 3 Divisions Proposed For State-Operated Institutions,” Baltimore Sun, June 22, 1962. Return to text

19. Stephen E. Nordlinger, “Curlett Plan Gets Support; Morgan Asks Exemption,” Baltimore Sun, January 25, 1963. Return to text

20. “Education Bill Signed; Tawes To Call Meeting On Plans For Higher Studies,” Baltimore Sun, February 27, 1963. Return to text

21. “Ban On Wicomico Pinballs Sought; Senator Nock Offers Bill to End Them June 1,” Baltimore Sun, March 6, 1963. Return to text

22. Beningo 161-2. Return to text 

23. Beningo 214. Return to text 

24. Bentley Orrick, “Lottery amendment clears early Senate test,” Baltimore Sun, February 8, 1972. Return to text

25. Beningo 267. Return to text 

26. “Senator Nock seeks re-election,” Baltimore Sun, June 15, 1974. Return to text

27. Beningo 297. Return to text

28. Beningo 299. Return to text

29. Mary Corddry, “White edges by Mrs. Nock in Lower Shore Senate race,” Baltimore Sun, September 11, 1974. Return to text

30. “Mary Nock dead at 83; legislator from Shore,” Baltimore Sun, May 24, 1987. Return to text

Biography written by 2014 summer intern Sharon Miyagawa.  

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