Beloved sports writer, champion of women leaves behind lasting legacy

Karen Brelsford met Carol Gralia at an open basketball gym for women in 1973 and their love of sports was the foundation for their deep friendship. Karen spent 28 years at the Columbia Flier and Howard County Times and freelanced for another dozen years. When Karen stepped down as sports editor in 2002, Carol took over those duties until retiring in 2012.

I lost my best friend last week and Howard County athletes lost a true friend as well.

Carol Gralia, 72, who was the sports editor for the Howard County Times and Columbia Flier newspapers for a decade, died Thanksgiving Day after a two-year battle with cancer.

Carol’s 35 years at Patuxent Publishing started very humbly as a typist and blossomed into a stellar writing career that included a “best in show” award from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association for her piece in 2003 on Rayna DuBose titled “Back from the brink.” She received praise from athletes and coaches alike for her integrity and fairness in reporting. Her most important legacy, however, is being a champion for women athletes.

Carol had a master’s degree in physical education, taught in Baltimore County and officiated volleyball and basketball games for the Baltimore Board of Officials. But she found her voice as a sports writer at the Columbia Flier.

Our history — Carol’s and mine — are so intertwined that people often talk about us as a unit. “You and Carol…the two of you…” But it was Carol who took coverage of Howard County’s women athletes to new heights. When I joined the Columbia Flier in 1975, Sports Editor Stan Ber and General Manager Jean Moon wanted to see more coverage of women’s sports in our community newspaper. Patuxent went on to buy the Howard County Times a few years later.

I took that to mean equal coverage, not just more. Equal coverage was unheard of then. Football, basketball and baseball dominated every sports section I had ever seen. While Stan and I laid the foundation for spotlighting our women athletes, it was Carol who made it her mission.

“I think about how far women’s sports have come in the last 40 years and both of you were instrumental,” said coach Ginger Kincaid, who won three state championships in field hockey and another three in lacrosse in 37 years at Glenelg High. She now coaches field hockey at Wilde Lake.

Women athletes were “an asterisk, an afterthought, we weren’t important at all,” she said, recalling the meagre newspaper coverage in the 1970s and into the early 1980s.

“I have every article Carol and you wrote and it is an amazing body of work,” she said. Ginger framed many of them and hung them in her office at Glenelg. There, the athletes could read about the accomplishments of previous teams, even though those teams hadn’t reached the pinnacle — a state championship. “It was a good bridge to the past. When we finally won our first state hockey championship [2010], our players realized it wasn’t just one successful year but an accomplishment that built on many years of hard work. Those articles helped them understand that.”

Ginger said Carol made an impact on her players. “She listened to them and tried to present them in the best light. She paid attention to them when others didn’t. She was their champion, she championed what was important to them.”

Carol’s sports writing earned her a place in the Howard County Women’s Athletics Hall of Fame, as well as the county’s Community Sports Hall of Fame.

“There is so much good stuff in the paper today but that would not have been possible without the groundwork both of you laid,” Ginger added.

One of Ginger’s outstanding athletes, Emily Russo, said that talking with Carol was easy. “Some (reporters) came and asked their questions and then they left. Carol carried a different demeanor. She was easy to talk to and she supported us even off the field,” said Emily, who was the Flier/Times player of the year in basketball in 2012 and earned a scholarship to UMBC. She also played field hockey and lacrosse.

“She captured the whole story, not just who scored. She involved the whole team,” said Emily. “We are going to miss her. She definitely had an impact on so many lives.”

Camille Powell Kilgore, a three-sport athlete at Howard High, says Carol had a tremendous influence on her career. Camille said she knew she wanted to be a sports writer even before she got to high school. “The idea that I could see two women [Carol and Karen] covering sports had an impact on me. I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, this is something I can do.’ ”

Like many Howard Countians, Camille, who graduated from high school in 1993, met us on the playing field. While I covered soccer, Carol covered basketball. Kilgore remembers her first encounter with Carol. “I was a freshman and nervous (about being interviewed after a basketball game). I was worried about what I said, if it would come out wrong. But Carol was very conscientious about (working with) athletes. She wasn’t protecting us, but she respected us. It was always exciting to talk with her.”

Camille did an internship at the Flier/Times one semester. “Both of you were so giving, so helpful, so enthusiastic about helping this high school girl who wanted to write,” she recalled.

Camille went on to write sports for the Washington Post, covering the Pan American Games, two World Cup soccer tournaments, and men’s and women’s Final Fours in basketball. The highlight of her career was covering the Orioles the night Cal Ripken decided to end his long streak. In 2012, Camille moved to the features department after 15 years in the Post’s sports department.

Carol also had an impact on other sports writers, including Brent Kennedy, who succeeded Carol as sports editor in 2012. “I actually was first introduced to Carol while still in high school, when I was playing club golf at Howard [High], and she interviewed me while doing a story about us winning a District championship,” Brent said. “I remember thinking how amazing it was that even though we weren’t even an official varsity sport, she still was going out of her way to give us some coverage.

“But, as I later learned when we became colleagues in 2006, that’s just the kind of person Carol was. She treated every sport and every athlete like they were as important as any other … there were no favorites. And, over the years at the newspaper, I’ve done my best to carry on that mindset.”

Stan Rappaport, then a writer for the Baltimore Sun, first met Carol while covering his first high school field hockey game. “I was writing for a daily, and I didn’t expect my competition from a weekly newspaper to be so welcoming. But then, I had never met Carol.

“She could see by the questions I asked that I had zero knowledge of the sport. Still, for the entire game, she politely answered my questions without laughing or telling me how clueless I was.”

After that, he added, competitors became close friends. “We spent many afternoons and evenings watching some really good games, and some that were really bad.

“She wrote concise game stories and feature stories that took the reader beyond the final score to see the athletes for who they were,” he added. Later, Stan joined the Patuxent staff as an editor and became a colleague. By then Carol had become the sports editor following my retirement as sports editor in 2002.

“Carol wrote from the human perspective, not just the x’s and o’s,” said Gail Purcell, who coached a state championship basketball team as well as a state champion in field hockey during her 35 years at Centennial. “I can remember many times when she would come into my office and sit on the sofa and talk about the girls, about how things were going, about whether they were looking to play in college. She had a human interest.”

“I always enjoyed seeing her walk across the field (to interview me) because I knew she would write a fair story,” Gail added. “Every game was special when she wrote about it. I couldn’t wait to get the paper every week.” Gail also noted that Carol always made sure to see every team in the county play, even those that weren’t having a good year.

Carol was down-to-earth, was the voice of reason in the sports department, and kept meticulous records that coaches relied on. The only thing flashy about Carol was the red roadster convertible that she drove. Coaches respected Carol for her knowledge of the games, her honesty and her integrity.

“I trusted her. How many coaches trust reporters? How many reporters trust coaches?” asked Dave Greenberg, who led Mt. Hebron’s girls basketball team to six state titles. “I felt really comfortable talking with her. She was dedicated and committed and very knowledgeable. She didn’t always agree with me but she listened.”

Carol’s impact on Howard County sports reached far beyond covering women’s sports. She could cover a football game or a state track meet or whatever game needed to be covered at the time. And she had a huge impact on the recreational sports that help make Columbia and Howard County a community.

I hired Carol in the late 1970s to help with game results from the growing number of recreational leagues, both for children and adults. Columbia was not yet a decade old at that point but still-new organizations like the Soccer Association of Columbia, the Columbia summer swim league, and Howard County Striders and well-established clubs like Howard County Youth Program and Atholton Youth Recreation Association were submitting game reports, mostly handwritten and hand-delivered. This was long before computers and floppy disks and email. Someone had to type all those reports and send them to typesetting. That was Carol’s job.

Soon, we were overwhelmed with rec sports writeups. Some weeks, Carol would spend two days retyping all those reports. And the number of organizations submitting those reports just kept growing as players and their parents got to see their names in print. Every so often we would get a call. “My scrapbook was lost…how can I get copies of those stories” from 20 or 30 years ago?

If a recreational athlete saw his or her name in the paper during Carol’s tenure, it was most likely because Carol had typed it and pleaded for space to run every report, every name.

Carol’s dedication helped grow many organizations. Dave Tripp, who served as president of the Howard County Striders, said her coverage of the running community encouraged others to join the Striders. He said Carol covered “under-reported species” of sports — not only for women but also lessor known sports.

Carol also volunteered at many local events for road races, doing things like packet pickup and directing road traffic, for races like the Columbia Triathlon, Clyde’s 10K, Columbia’s Irongirl marathon and the Metric Marathon.

Dave later served with Carol on the Howard County Community Sports Hall of Fame committee and also the Bob Davidson Scholar-Athlete scholarship committee. “Her knowledge of the athletes was impressive. She knew if an (athlete’s stated) achievement was valid or if it was puff. She knew the kids, the coaches, and she was objective.”

Carol retired from Patuxent in 2012 and yoga became her new passion. She earned certification and taught classes at the Yoga Center of Columbia, where her gifts of teaching and mentoring and humor made her many new friends.

Carol’s wonderful sense of humor was noted by many. While her Christmas letters to friends and family became treasured objects, she was even able to inject some humor into her diagnosis.

On Nov. 4, 2016, Carol wrote an email updating her condition: “Wednesday, I was diagnosed with hepatobiliary carcinoma. Before my Whipple (procedure in January 2016), some rogue cells went through the bile duct system in search of a place to party.

“They found homes in sections 3, 5 and 6 of my liver.”

A Celebration of Life will be held next year, said Mars Gralia, her husband of 49 years. Survivors also include children Meg Pulfer, Alex (Claire) Gralia and Reed Gralia, and three grandchildren, Ellador Pulfer, Quintin Gralia and Dominic Gralia.

Reach Brent Kennedy at bkennedy@baltsun.com or follow him on twitter @BKBSunSports

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