There was an unfortunate symmetry of sorts to Thursday, Oct. 11, as some members of The Aegis news staff worked on a story about the 40th anniversary of the opening of Harford Mall.
Clipping files covering stories written about the mall from the 1980s through the early 2000s were brought to the newsroom from the Harford County Historical Society where these files have been stored since last year when our Hays Street building was closed.
In the days before digital production and archiving, files of this nature were vital to every news gathering organization; ours is no exception. Even though we started electronically archiving articles in the early 2000s, we still rely on those files for a significant amount of our research.
The creation and keeping of the files were mostly the work of Esther Everitt Dombrowski, who created and supervised them, first as a librarian for The Record in Havre de Grace, and then for another 11 years in a similar position at The Aegis in Bel Air.
Unfortunately, the day we were using the files to research the Harford Mall story, Mrs. Dombrowski was lying a few blocks away in the McComas Funeral Home, after passing away at the age of 81 on Oct. 9.
For many of us associated with The Aegis, today and in the past, "Mrs. D.," as she was fondly known to most of the staff, was much more than the librarian, as important as that position was to us. She was also an organizer and a unifier, someone who would listen to a co-worker's problems without passing judgment and a very, very important member of the team, so much so that when she retired in 2001, we packed the second floor of the former Georgetown North for her farewell luncheon.
Historian and gifted writer
Mrs. Dombrowski was also a gifted writer with a wry sense of humor and, until her retirement, she was responsible for researching and writing the Looking Back, 50 years ago and 25 years ago columns that appeared in our papers, still very popular features today. She also assisted reporters and editors in researching articles and finding old photographs. (In addition to her clipping files at the Historical Society in Bel Air, her photograph archive remains intact at The Sun building in Baltimore).
She also annually compiled among the best of the news staff's work for submission to various peer judged contests, sometimes without the entrant's knowledge, as evident by the many surprised faces around the newsroom when reporters, editors and photographers learned they had won something.
Mrs. Dombrowski also possessed a strong knowledge of Harford County history and an even more intimate knowledge of Bel Air history. She was a true blue Bel Air girl through and through, born and raised in town, a 1948 graduate of the "old-old" Bel Air High on Gordon Street and, after graduating from college, served as the librarian at the "old" Bel Air High on Heighe Street for 31 years.
"Esther was proud that her heritage was in Harford County," her niece, Pat Weaver, of Forest Hill," wrote in Mrs. Dombrowski's obituary published in The Aegis Oct. 10.
In 1995, Mrs. Dombrowski researched and wrote "The Homefront: Harford County in World War II," in two installments for the Harford Historical Bulletin. The pieces, which featured 14 illustrations from the society's and her personal archives, touched on all aspects of life in Harford during the war, from the draft and enlistments to homefront security rationing, scrap drives, housing, schools and local contributions to the war effort, both in defense factories and agriculture. According to our archives, Mrs. Dombrowski's research included both archival materials and newspaper accounts and interviews and oral histories with county residents who lived during the period.
Her researching and writing acumen was on display again in 1999; Mrs. Dombrowski was a co-researcher and co-writer on a serialized series of articles The Aegis published each month entitled, "Our Century: Harford County in the 1900s," a retrospective about the county in the 100 years then drawing to a close.
It was Mrs. Dombrowski who did much of the early work to get the project rolling, including acting as our liaison with the Historical Society, which provided us with much of the archival photographs and other material that our own organization no longer possessed, or that had not been archived prior until the late 1960s. The relationship forged with the society on that project remains strong more than a decade later.
The "Our Century" piece was later republished in total as a special section in December 1999. That effort later received a "Best in Show" award from the Maryland Delaware D.C. Press Association, which means judges felt it was the best of any special section published by any newspaper, daily or non-daily in the entire region. Mrs. Dombrowski did not go with us to Washington to receive the award in April 2000; she stayed in Bel Air to comfort one of our co-workers whose father had died a few days before.
A passion for service
All this and more that she did for our organization was actually a second career for Mrs. Dombrowski. She also was an organizer of and for many years an active participant in our company's Christmas charity, The Aegis Empty Stocking Fund, and remained so for several years following her retirement.
Even in her final days, Mrs. Dombrowski remained active in her church, St. Mary's Episcopal in Emmorton, where she was a longtime member and officer in the Women of St. Mary's and became famous for directing meals, receptions and parties catered by the women's group.
Her last visit to The Aegis office came just weeks before her death, to place a calendar item in her capacity as the church women's publicity chairman. Though she got around with the aid of a walker, she drove herself that day.
Mrs. Dombrowski was also active for many years in the Soroptimist International Club of Bel Air, which named her its Woman of the Year in 1990.