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.
'Such an incredible woman'
"Esther was feisty and full of life," recalled Karen Bowers, director of classified advertising, who for a time at work shared basement quarters Mrs. Dombrowski in the old WVOB Radio building on Hays Street, where much of the archives were when Mrs. Dombrowski worked at the newspaper. "She was such an incredible woman."
"She had more energy than a lot of people half her age. When Mr. D. [her late husband, Raymond] was alive, I don't think they ever slowed down,'" Bowers said, noting Mrs. Dombrowski's love of music. "They were always at concerts (whether or not he was performing) or going out dancing. I remember her being at a Tuba Christmas concert at the [Bel Air] Armory and she was smiling and moving in her seat to the music. You could tell that she was thoroughly enjoying it."
"She was part of the reason that the Empty Stocking got such a good start," Bowers continued. "Her dedication to special projects was incredible. She always put 150 percent into whatever she believed in."
"She could find pretty much find any news story printed, even if we didn't print it in one of our papers," Bowers said. "She never shook her 'school teacher' role. She was forever changing the bulletin boards at work, always giving credit to the people that worked so hard to get the news out. She was very proud of them and their work.
"Mrs. D. was a pure sweet person, whose work with us at The Aegis and Record was invaluable," Sports Editor Randy McRoberts said. "Despite crippling arthritis, Mrs. D. marched on with very few complaints. Seeing her just about a month ago, she was still that same caring, sweet person that I had the pleasure to know and work with for a very long time. Sad for her loss, but thankful her suffering is over."
"First and foremost, Mrs. D. brought order to the chaos of our newsroom," Ted Hendricks, managing editor of The Record in Havre de Grace when Mrs. D. started her second career, said. "When Peter A. Jay hired her to be The Record's librarian, our archives were a mess. She quickly brought a professionalism, an order and an orderliness to keeping track of everything we published."
As daunting as that task was, Hendricks said, it paled in comparison to what was in front of her after the 1989 consolidation of The Record and The Aegis news operations.
"When we came to Bel Air as the two competing newsrooms were merged, Mrs. D. had to start all over again with The Aegis," Hendricks, who has been executive editor of The Aegis for 20 years, said. "And there was a lot more to the Aegis files than she ever had to straighten out at The Record."
But it was the personal side of Mrs. D. that Hendricks said he remembers the most.
"I probably had more chats with Mrs. D. during our time together than with anyone I've ever worked with," Hendricks said, "and almost none of them were about her. She was always looking out for everyone else and doing what she could to help others."
"She was a bit feisty, but always in a kind, sweet way," Hendricks said. "We're all better off for having known Mrs. D."
"When I think of Esther Dombrowski, I have a lot of good memories," Editorial Page Editor Jim Kennedy, one of the current staff who worked with her the longest, said.
"Our first introduction came when we were both working in Havre de Grace at The Record," Kennedy recalled. "I was a new reporter with relatively little experience, and she was in charge of the newspaper's extensive clip and photograph files. Traditionally, these archives have been known as 'morgues,' as they are the repositories for dead stories. Mrs. D. made it clear that the archive at The Record was not a morgue, but a library and she was a librarian."
"She had spent a career as the librarian at Bel Air High School, which also was her alma mater, and was willing to work in a newspaper's library as a part time retirement job, but there was no way she was going to work in a morgue," he added.
"She had a wry wit. She had played basketball at Bel Air High School and was part of a championship women's team," Kennedy continued. "One time we were going through some clips, probably because a story was in the works about a basketball team anniversary, and she showed me a photo of her high school team. I remember commenting, 'You were quite a looker.' Without skipping a beat, she shot back with a big smile, "What do you mean were?"
"She and her husband, Ray, had no children, but I don't think I'm alone in feeling like they both regarded the younger people around them as surrogate kids," Kennedy said.
The boiler room
There's a oft-told story about the Dombrowskis - Raymond died in 2008 - that was chronicled in a 1990 article written by Karen Toussaint for The Sunday Weekly, that is no longer published, around a Valentine's Day theme. The article was titled "Boiler Room Romances: Couples meet in lots of places," and it prominently featured a photo of the Dombrowskis on the paper's cover.
"We met in the boiler room at Bel Air High School," Esther recalled for the article. "We both smoked at the time, and that was the only place teachers were allowed to smoke in the building. It was the fall of 1953. We were married in June of 1956."
Mr. Dombrowski was the much-admired and revered music teacher and band director at Bel Air High. Mrs. Dombrowski developed the routines used by the pom-pom crews and majorettes. The couple made a formidable team, according to their students and former BAHS teaching colleagues. (Esther told the story of how after they married, she was able to keep her position only because, as librarian, she didn't actually grade students.)
Karen Toussaint, who was particularly close to the couple, recalled last week how when her first husband was dying from a long, debilitating illness, "Esther was there with me, comforting me. She was really a wonderful person."
Teaching another generation
"So I have several memories of Mrs. D., as we always called her," Photo Editor Matt Button said. "It was obvious to me shortly after being hired at the paper that Mrs. D. had been a teacher at some point, because she always had that firm but understanding way about her and she would give you 'that look,' if she was calling you out on something."
"She was always helpful with the clip files or other file photos in the library archives, and she would always remind us that we had better make sure that things either got back to where they belonged, or at least on her desk so she could re-file them in the proper place," he added.
"I loved her sharp wit and sense of humor and she was always quick with a smile or, 'Hello, Mr. Button," and just like my grandmother, if she called me 'Matthew,' I knew I had done something wrong, or at least felt that way."
"One of the best memories I have of Mrs. D. was from an afternoon not too long after I had been hired at the paper," Button continued. "While scurrying around the building, back in the days when I had to process film, prints and what-not, I hurriedly rounded a blind corner head down with a handful of stuff toward the newsroom and as I looked up, there was the tiny grandmom that was Mrs. D."
"I dropped the stuff in my hands, wrapped my arms around her, lifted her up in a gentle bear hug and walked a few feet before putting her down and apologizing," he recalled. "I remember her saying 'that was a close one,' as both of us were laughing. It became a running joke that we shared for years after. As the years went by and Mrs. D. would come around to visit, she still had that quick wit and always asked how my new (and growing) family was.
"We will miss you, Mrs. D. Rest in peace."