Mary J. Corey, whose personal warmth was matched by a drive that led her to become the first woman in The Baltimore Sun's 176-year history to head its newsroom, died Tuesday of breast cancer.
The Sun's senior vice president and director of content, who was 49, essentially grew up at her hometown paper, joining it as a college intern and rising through its reporting and editing ranks. She led The Sun to regional Newspaper of the Year honors during the past two years and spearheaded new print and digital sections while building on its tradition of investigative journalism.
"Mary was an outstanding colleague and a wonderful person," said Timothy E. Ryan, publisher, president and CEO of The Baltimore Sun. "When I had the opportunity to select her as editor in 2010, I knew she would be an extraordinary leader for our team. Amid an unprecedented information revolution, Mary used her leadership and creativity to position The Sun for the future. She was exceptionally adept at driving the vital work of the newsroom while embracing opportunities for growth in the digital age.
"She was a friend and mentor to many here, and I will miss her both as a colleague and a friend."
Taking the helm three years ago, Ms. Corey led almost 200 journalists at The Sun and its community newspapers and magazines during challenging times. Fiercely devoted to the newspaper that she grew up reading as the youngest of three sisters in Cockeysville, she steadied the newsroom as the industry was contracting and adjusting to a new media landscape.
Perhaps most personally meaningful for her was the return in 2010 of the Sun Magazine, 14 years after it ceased publication — Ms. Corey got her start in journalism at the magazine while still a student at what is now Notre Dame of Maryland University. The magazine's editor at the time, Susan Baer, spoke at a class there. Ms. Corey met her and boldly followed up with a phone call asking for an internship.
"We had a small staff and didn't have any internship position, but I was so struck by her initiative — and something about her that was so impressive — that I convinced my supervisor to let her come on," said Ms. Baer, a longtime Sun journalist and now a writer in Washington. "It was obvious right from the start that Mary was something special. She was bright and funny and spunky and so incredibly likable. And she had this spark — just full of enthusiasm. She brightened up the place. It was clear to everyone that she had a great career in front of her."
Ms. Baer also became a close friend, part of a circle of women who orbited around Ms. Corey. Over the years, they celebrated each other's weddings, pregnancies and promotions, and provided solace during the inevitable heartbreaks, illnesses and losses.
"I've so often marveled at her seemingly infinite capacity for friendship," said her friend and former editor Jan Warrington. "It seemed boundless. She was the friend we always wanted to have, the friend we always wanted to be."
Ms. Warrington, a psychologist who formerly headed The Sun's features department, hired Ms. Corey as an editorial assistant in 1987 but soon promoted her to reporter. Ms. Corey covered Baltimore's dining scene, profiled newsmakers and celebrities, and served a tour as fashion writer.
It was a fulfillment of dreams that began early: She worked at the student newspaper at Dulaney High School, coincidentally with someone she would later write about in The Sun: Spike Gjerde, chef and owner of Woodberry Kitchen in Hampden.
"She was a very smart, wise person," Mr. Gjerde said, remembering her as "the adult in the room" with her less mature classmates. "Even back then she made that kind of impression."
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called Ms. Corey "a trailblazer in her profession." She said Ms. Corey "was committed to the Baltimore region and was one of the few editors of a major metropolitan newspaper to have the unique opportunity to lead her hometown paper that she grew up reading. My thoughts and prayers are with Mary, her family and all her colleagues at The Baltimore Sun."
Ms. Corey became a national correspondent in 1997, covering such stories as the murder of designer Gianni Versace in Miami and co-authoring a series on the children of civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
"I think there was this innate curiosity about people and why they did what they did," said Sandy Banisky, a former Sun editor and friend, "whether these people were local restaurant people or New York fashion designers or politicians."
Ms. Corey had a keen eye for trends and developed a reputation for hard work and dogged persistence. As an editor and manager, she proved skillful at balancing both budgets and people, finding resources to undertake ambitious projects and getting the most out of the staff.
Over the years, Ms. Corey rose from deputy national editor to assistant managing editor for features, becoming a juror on the Pulitzer Prize panel that selected the feature writing winner. In 2009, she was named head of print and a year later took the top job of director of content.
Her rise may have seemed improbable to those who saw only her good-natured personality. But those closest to her knew that she was both kind-hearted and clear-eyed.
"Mary was a steel magnolia — her warmth, charm and beguiling demeanor helped her succeed as a journalist and as a person, but those traits also masked her inner toughness, which drove her to succeed and also face the daunting challenges that came her way," said her friend and former colleague, Rebecca Corbett, senior enterprise editor at The New York Times.