Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Gertrude L. Poe (1915-2017)
MSA SC 3520-15217

Biography:

Gertrude Louise Poe dreamt of becoming a lawyer, but had no idea that her true calling lay in chronicling the history of Laurel while helping nurture a changing and growing community. The “First Lady of Maryland Journalism,” Gertrude was born in Granite, Maryland, in 1915, the youngest of five daughters born to Worthy and Bertha Poe. Upon graduating from Laurel High School at the age of 15, she went to work as a legal secretary in the law office of George P. McCeney, putting her dreams of higher education on hold due to the Great Depression. G. Bowie McCeney took over the law practice following the death of his father, and continued to nurture Gertrude’s love of the law and her desire to practice one day as well.

Ms. Poe entered the Washington College of Law (now part of American University) in 1936. She attended classes in the evening, while working full time as a secretary in Washington, D.C., during the day. Following graduation in 1939, Gertrude returned to McCeney’s office in Laurel, eager to be his law partner one day. Six months prior, he had acquired a local newspaper, The Leader. Upon Gertrude’s return, he appointed her editor, telling her “The Leader isn’t much now, but see what you can make of it.”1 His intention was for her to work on it while studying for the Maryland bar exam, after which she could begin her career in law. Fortunately for Laurel, this never happened.

At the time Ms. Poe became editor of The Leader, it was a tabloid sized, eight page newspaper, consisting mainly of “canned” material except for two pages of local advertisements and stories. Despite no formal training in journalism, Poe jumped in with both feet, learning every step involved in the editing, layout, and production of the paper. In 1943, a Sun reporter commented “Miss Gertrude L. Poe edits the Leader, at Laurel, and does it darn well.”2

As The Leader grew, Poe also took on editorial responsibilities for other local, weekly newspapers acquired by McCeney, and, in 1946, they were merged to become The News Leader. The paper later incorporated, with Poe serving as both editor and co-publisher alongside Bowie McCeney. Despite the business partnership, it remained a “one-woman” paper. “I was solely responsible for reporting, advertising, editing, make-up, ‘putting the newspaper to bed,’ and delivering the newspapers to the post office and dealers.”3 Poe also operated a successful insurance agency at this time.

In 1947, Poe put together a commemorative 50th anniversary edition of the Leader. This also marked the first appearance of her column, “Pen Points.” Poe continued to write this front page column for the remainder of her career, however it was not weekly, rather “’time decided’ when she would write the column.”4 The general theme of many of her columns was to “express a concern for the community and a need to nurture and uphold it.”5 Poe developed a lasting relationship with the Leader’s readers through “Pen Points.”

During this time, Poe helped with the establishment an informal group of weekly newspaper publishers and editors, the Maryland Press Association (now the Maryland Delaware DC Press Association). The group incorporated and included daily newspapers among its membership as well. Poe served in various leadership positions in the association before ultimately being elected president in February 1958. With her election, Poe became the first woman in the country to head a state press association. Her ascension gained attention from both local and national newspapers. She also represented the group through her participation in the National Editorial Association. This included a Study Mission in Europe with other publishers and editors. Poe gained some celebrity while traveling with the group, “With scarcely a woman in Europe serving as a publisher or editor, it was unheard of that one would head a press association, and I was constantly in demand for interviews by foreign journalists.”6

Poe and The News Leader began to garner attention in the press community, and received numerous awards for both individual stories and the paper at large. Among these accolades were General Excellence awards among weekly newspapers in the region, and a Best Editorial Award among both weeklies and dailies. Poe won “First Place for Best Feature Story” in the annual Better Newspaper Contest sponsored by Maryland Delaware DC Press Association for an interview she did with a local soldier who spent time as a Prisoner of War during Vietnam. In November 1965, she was featured as “Editor of the Week” in Publishers Auxiliary, the publication of the National Newspaper Association. Poe remained humble about her work though, “I was just doing my job to the best of my ability and such recognition was an award in itself.”7

The most prestigious honor came in 1967 when Poe became the second person to receive the Emma C. McKinney Memorial Award from the National Newspaper Association. The McKinney Award, one of the two highest awards in community journalism, is presented each year to a “woman who [has] provided distinguished service and leadership to the community press and their community.”8 Nominated by her fellow editors and publishers from the Maryland Delaware DC Press Association, Poe commented, “It was a splendid occasion and an award I never dreamed of meriting.”9

It was also at this time that the Leader began to acquire additional staff persons, and Poe was no longer solely responsible for the paper’s production. As a result, she was able to undertake additional endeavors, including a daily, five minute newscast on Laurel’s radio station, WLMD. This continued for two years until staffing needs required her to return her focus entirely on the paper.

1970 marked the 100th anniversary of Laurel. During the City’s centennial year, Poe oversaw the work of both a 60 page commemorative edition of The News Leader and a 120 page commemorative booklet. She did a lot of writing, and also did the layout of every page of the booklet. “Both the commemorative booklet and newspaper received wide acclaim and remain the two greatest sources of Laurel lore.”10 In 1976, she also produced a commemorative edition of the Leader for the nation’s bicentennial.

With the death of her business partner, Bowie McCeney, in December 1978, Poe began to entertain offers to buy The News Leader. “Together we had attained economic security and unparalleled recognition in the weekly newspaper field in Maryland and the nation.”11 She began to find managing the paper “a lonely, arduous course without him.”12 The June 26, 1980, issue was Poe’s last. She was 24 at the time she became editor and was now 65. During the course of her career, she oversaw 2,132 editions of the paper and received numerous accolades and awards. In her final “Pen Points” column, Poe reflected on the previous 41 years and the changes she and Laurel and endured together. “Can you imagine how proud I am to have been the chief chronicler of Laurel’s saga for more than four decades? I didn’t do it alone. It was done with teamwork. You have been my partner all these years,” she wrote.13

Despite her retirement, Poe remained active in state and national press associations. The Maryland Delaware D.C. Press Association selected her for its Hall of Fame in 1986. Established in 1947, Poe was only the 20th person to be so honored, and was both the first living recipient and the first woman to receive the award. She remains one of only a handful of women presently in the Hall.

Poe has always been an active member of the Laurel community. She was a sought after public speaker, and a member of the American Platform Association. Poe was one of the founding members of Laurel’s Soroptimist Club. She also served as a charter member and past president of the Laurel Regional Hospital Foundation, and was honored for her work at their gala in 1991. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Laurel Historical Society since its founding in 1976, and supports arts organizations such as the Olney Theater Center.

In her retirement she has been active with the Snow Hill Garden Club of Laurel, as well as The Questors, an organization which supports the study of antiquities and historic preservation, of which she has served in various roles. Poe has also been very active with the First United Methodist Church in Laurel for most of her life. She was the first woman to be elected chairman of the Church’s Board of Trustees, is a founder and former president of their fellowship organization, and served as a lay preacher numerous times. She worked for many years to have a historical marker placed on the site of the first Methodist Church in Laurel.

In September 2014, the First United Methodist Church in Laurel dedicated a chapel and stained-glass window in honor of the Poe family as part of celebrations for Poe's 99th birthday. Miss Poe passed away at her home in Ashton, Maryland, on July 13, 2017, at the age of 101.

Awards and honors

Profiled in Women of Achievement in Prince George's County History (1994), Women of Achievement in Maryland History (2002), and Who’s Who of Maryland Women, 1930-1976.

Inductee, Maryland Delaware DC Press Association Hall of Fame (1986)

Emma C. McKinney Memorial Award from the National Newspaper Assocation (1976)

“Editor of the Week” in Publishers Auxiliary, publication of the National Newspaper Association. (November 1965)

Recipient of numerous editorial and General Excellence awards from regional newspaper organizations between 1953-1967

Honored by the by the Royal Arch Masons of Maryland for outstanding community service, the first woman to be so honored by the fraternal organization (1979)

“Woman of the Year” by Xi Alpha Zeta Chapter of Beta Sigma Phi International Sorority (1976)

First place for media/newspapers within the county and finalist as Female Business Leader, Prince George’s County Business Community Service Awards (1976)

Honorary Member, Maryland Jaycees (1966) – the first woman to be so honored by the fraternal organization

Lifetime Honorary Member of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department (1964) – the first woman to be so honored

Patriotic Civilian Service Award (1963)

Contribution to society

Laurel saw many changes during the 20th century, its growth largely attributed to the expansion of military and intelligence operations in the area and suburban sprawl. As the editor of a community newspaper, Gertrude Poe used her position to both inform and strengthen the ties that make up a community. As Louis Peddicord wrote in a profile of Poe, “Her life has been the newspaper and the people of that city.”14 It was “her aim to make the newspaper, ‘an instrument of community unity, acquainting residents with one another.’”15 “Many have told me they feel that without The News Leader Laurel would have lost something of its identity in the growing urbanization of the entire area. So, yes, I imagine the newspaper has helped Laurel remain itself even as the Baltimore-Washington sprawl gradually closes in on it.”16As she wrote in her final column, “Those 2132 editions prove that Laurel is really something special. She just isn’t any place. She has charisma and character and courage and compassion.”17

When the National Security Agency moved to the Greater Laurel area in 1958, the area was faced with an influx of workers, much like the State of Maryland is seeing now with new jobs resulting from the nationwide work of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC). Poe took advantage of the opportunity and used her position as editor to openly address the workers through a special article. “I tried to create a composite picture of our town and its offerings and a genuine gesture of saying, ‘We’re glad you’ve come. We want to be your good neighbors. We want you to join us….’ I was beginning to establish a liaison between Laurel and Fort Meade which would improve the somewhat hostile attitude that had existed since World War I.”18 The article went on to win first place for community service in a Maryland Press Association newspaper contest in 1959, and Poe herself later received the Patriotic Civilian Service Award “for ‘keen awareness of the inter-relation between the military post and the civilian community,’”19

To help insure that community newspapers remain vital and dynamic for years to come, Poe has endowed a scholarship fund at the University of Maryland College Park’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism. While the fund was originally established using proceeds from her retirement dinner in 1980, Poe has continued to support it. The fund currently provides up to two undergraduate awards annually, with preference given to those who plan to seek a career in community journalism, “assuring the future strength and vigor of the free press at all levels.”20

Enduring value

Through 2,132 editions of The News Leader, Gertrude Poe produced a quality newspaper, held to the highest editorial standards, while gaining awards and honors. However, while reporting the news of the town, she was not only keeping residents informed of the issues and events affecting them, but she was also creating a historical record for future generations. Over her 41 year career, she “was determined to give my readers news that was not available to them from any other source, and I maintained that guideline until I retired. I was beginning to understand that even a birth announcement or wedding or obituary added to the source of historical and genealogical information a weekly newspaper becomes.”21 Today, copies of these stories reside in perpetuity in several local libraries for all to explore and learn from.

Ms. Poe’s pioneering career helped pave the way for the acceptance of women in the editorial and publishing fields. In today’s global 24 hour news market, it also reminds us of the importance of community and the ties that bring us together. We would have no legacy or heritage to reflect on and learn from without those dedicated to reporting stories both large and small.

Endnotes

1. Gertrude L. Poe, “Pen Points: Time for Reflection,” The News Leader, 26 June 1980. Return to text
2. “A Maryland Editor Whose Work is Considered Essential War Work.” The Sun, 4 June 1943. Return to text
3. Gertrude L. Poe, Lady Editor (Ashton, MD: Gertrude L. Poe, 2004), 61. Return to text
4. Lindsey Wotanis, “Using a Newspaper to Stabilize a Community.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Marriott Downtown, Chicago, IL, August 6, 2008. (http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p271848_index.html) Return to text
5. Ibid. Return to text
6. Poe, Lady Editor, 91. Return to text
7. Ibid, 112. Return to text
8. National Newspaper Association, Amos and McKinney Awards (http://www.nnaweb.org/?/nnaweb/amosmckinney01) Return to text
9. Poe, Lady Editor, 117. Return to text
10. Ibid, 132. Return to text
11. Ibid, 160. Return to text
12. Poe, “Pen Points: Time for Reflection” Return to text
13. Ibid. Return to text
14. Louis Peddicord, “Gertrude Poe, Lady Editor,” Maryland Magazine 7 no. 4 (Summer 1975), 41. Return to text
15. Wotanis. Return to text
16. Peddicord, 42. Return to text
17. Poe, “Pen Points: Time for Reflection” Return to text
18. Poe, Lady Editor, 70. Return to text
19. Ibid, 112. Return to text
20. “Pioneering Journalist Creates a Legacy,” http://www.greatexpectations.umd.edu/honorroll_spots/poe_spot.html Return to text
21. Poe, Lady Editor, 46. Return to text
 

Biography prepared by the staff of the Maryland State Archives, October 2010; updated July 2017.

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