L. Poe is known as “Maryland’s First Lady of Journalism.” It was an
unusual turn of events that resulted in her not pursuing a dream of practicing
law, but rather serving as editor for 41 years of The News Leader,
a weekly newspaper in Laurel. Her pioneering spirit helped pave the way
for the acceptance of women in the field of journalism and many other professional
and business arenas.
In 1980, at the time of her retirement, Gertrude received a tribute in the Congressional Record by the Honorable Gladys Noon Spellman. Here is an excerpt: “Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, ‘An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.’ Had he known Gertrude Poe he would have added the words ‘or one woman.’ … The institution is our town newspaper, The News Leader. Throughout her 41-year association with the paper, Gertrude L. Poe was more than its editor and its publisher, she was its guiding force and spirit, and, as such, she had unequaled unique impact on both the newspaper and the community it serves.”
Gertrude was born in 1915 in Granite, Maryland. Her family soon moved to a farm in Beltsville, where she attended a one-room school and dreamed of becoming a lawyer. She graduated at age 15 from Laurel High School during the Great Depression and was happy to find work as a legal secretary and court reporter for $5 a week at the McCeney law office on Main Street. She decided to study law and took night classes at Washington College of Law, graduating in 1939.
Returning to the McCeney law office after a three-year leave of absence, with diploma in hand, expecting to practice law, Gertrude was greeted by G. Bowie McCeney with a copy of a small, weekly newspaper he had acquired in a business transaction. He said, “I want to see what you can do with it.” Gertrude protested with skills she had just learned, but lost her first case. At age 24, she became an editor, a profession for which she would never train. During WWII she not only handled The Leader, but The Bowie Register, The College Park News, The Beltsville Banner and an insurance business, all owned by McCeney. She even became a broadcaster of the local scene when radio station WLMD opened in Laurel.
In 1947, an article in the Baltimore Evening Sun stated, “Perhaps the hardest working city editor in the State of Maryland is a chic, slim brunette who wears pearl earrings and likes nothing better than an ample midday meal of corned beef and cabbage, with pie ... she puts out her eight-page weekly without assistance from anyone, even a copy boy. She gets and writes all the stories, writes a weekly column and the editorial, sells the advertising and makes up all the ads.” Circulation that started at five paid subscribers in 1939 topped a high of 5,000 during her time as editor and publisher and the paper grew to an average 30-page broadsheet. It peaked to 60 pages for the City of Laurel’s Centennial and 52 pages for the celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial. Her Pen Points column drew a loyal following and provided unbiased, but direct, commentary. The stories included communication with servicemen in WWII, the Korean Conflict and Vietnam, activities at Fort Meade, the arrival of the National Security Agency, the shooting of George Wallace and, of course, births, deaths and community activities.
In 1958, Gertrude was elected the first woman to head the Maryland Press Association, then in its 50th year, and was reported to be the first woman in the nation to head an organized press group. In 1987 she was the first woman inducted into the now Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association’s Hall of Fame on display at the College of Journalism, University of Maryland. In 2008, at its 100th year gala at the Newseum in Washington, she was a guest speaker and honorary chairperson. In 1976 she received the Emma C. McKinney Memorial Award from the National Newspaper Association, one of the two highest awards in community journalism. Gertrude was the first woman asked to represent the Association when it was invited to attend the 1958 Brussels World Fair to evaluate U.S. participation.
In an interview in Maryland Magazine, she explains that as a businesswoman and editor she never had a hint of discrimination. The “first woman status” had become a frequent occurrence. In 1972, she was invited by Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird to participate in the 41st Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC) with some 70 civilian leaders, all men, for a first-hand view of all the home bases of our armed forces. Her invitation resulted in three other women being included. She was the first woman to be honored by the fraternal Royal Arch Masons of Maryland for outstanding community service (1979), the first woman named an honorary member of the Maryland Jaycees (1966) and first woman to be a lifetime member of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department (1964). Although these were unforgettable experiences, she was just as proud to be the first woman to speak at the Laurel High School commencement or at the opening of a new elementary school. An accomplished speaker, she is well known for her challenging and encouraging words.
Gertrude’s dedication to community always has gone beyond her role with the newspaper. Devoted to the Olney Theater since the 1940s, she became a benefactor upon her retirement and the intermission lobby bears her name. She is actively involved in the Captain John Chapter of the Maryland Questers, a group devoted to the preservation and restoration of existing historical landmarks and the acquisition of antiques. She is a charter member of the Laurel Historical Society and Museum. She has been a dedicated member of First United Methodist Church of Laurel since 1925, when she was 10 years old. Since 1980, she has endowed a scholarship fund at the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism to “assure the future strength and vigor of the free press at all levels.”
Through 2,132 editions of The News Leader, Gertrude Poe produced a quality newspaper, and held to extreme editorial standards, while gaining local and national awards and honors. More importantly, she has shown by example what it means to make a difference with your life and in your community, while holding steadfast to the highest professional and personal values.
Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2011.
© Copyright Maryland State Archives, 2011