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Josephine Marie Novak, 79, reporter for The Evening Sun for two decades

Josephine Marie Novak, whose lively and insightful feature reporting was a mainstay of The Evening Sun for two decades, died Tuesday at Mercy Medical Center of complications from a fall last week at her Parkville home. She was 79.

Miss Novak was born in Baltimore, the daughter of Czechoslovakian immigrants, and raised near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

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She was an Eastern High School graduate, attended the Johns Hopkins University and its old evening school and studied journalism in night classes at Loyola College.

"I always considered her a self-made writer who went to it and did a good job. She was pretty amazing," Elise Chisholm, a former Evening Sun columnist, said yesterday.

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During the early 1950s, Miss Novak worked abroad as a columnist for the Moroccan Courier, an English-language newspaper, reporting on American servicemen and their families.

In 1959, she joined the staff of the Riviera Sun in Monte Carlo, and while exploring the coast of Monaco, she wrote a series of feature stories called "Characters Along the Coast," as well as a light-hearted gossip column.

Miss Novak began her Evening Sun career in 1966 on what was then called the Women's Pages, and built a reputation as a hard-working reporter.

"She was a utility reporter of Evening Sun features and was sort of like a versatile baseball player who could play all the positions. She also worked stories for the news side and was always willing to help," said Ernest F. Imhoff, a longtime reporter and editor with The Evening Sun and The Sun. "She was enthusiastic, had a good attitude, and was very friendly."

Miss Novak was able to combine an outgoing personality and insatiable curiosity with a crisp writing style, and wrote hundreds of stories spanning the spectrum from celebrity interviews to medical and social issues. She also covered arts and fashion, travel and food. Her how-to-tips, recipes, decorating hints and humor columns also reached a wide audience.

Her early work appeared as a regular column, "Women's Viewpoints," which ran until 1970.

That year, she earned an honorable mention in the Catherine L. O'Brien Award competition sponsored by Stanley Home Products for her two-part story, "Negro Buyer Exploited As Neighborhoods Change." Her nine-part series "Dyslexia: What is It?" won a J.C. Penney-University of Missouri Journalism School award in 1971.

When the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre opened in 1967 to a glittering standing-room crowd, Miss Novak wrote that it was the "crown jewel of Charles Center," and "had there been rafters, people would have been hanging from them."

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Her many celebrity profiles included interviews with Christine Jorgensen, Margaret Mead, Gordon Parks, Jeanne Dixon and Rosa Ponselle.

She had the ability of taking a routine cat-and-dog story and coming up with an interesting twist - such as a tale about Dorsey, a Boston terrier of a Howard County family, whose favorite television shows were Lassie, Tarzan and Daktari. She noted that he was partial to dog food commercials and any show featuring chimps and lions.

While interviewing Leonard Fisher, a New York jewelry designer who arrived at her Evening Sun office with $100,000 worth of jewelry, he put a diamond and emerald ring on her finger. The ring, worth $5,500, became stuck when Miss Novak tried to remove it.

"Fisher said he had to get the jewels back to New York, and she'd have to come with him. 'No way,' said single Jo, who began twisting harder with the help of a fellow Women's Page staffer," Mr. Imhoff said. "The ring came off after 20 minutes and Jo told Fisher, 'Sorry, the engagement's off.'"

After conducting research at clubs, bars and restaurants, she concluded in the 1960s that the drink women favored was the Bloody Mary. "And they're drinking them by the gallons, it seems," she wrote.

Her stories often had the ability to touch the heart, engendering many letters from concerned readers - such as the case of a mother whose 300-pound developmentally disabled daughter needed a size 54 coat in order to remain in school. Reader response was overwhelming.

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"It does one's heart good to know there are so many kind people who would immediately tackle an immense sewing project in order to come to the aid of someone less fortunate than they," Miss Novak wrote.

"She was a shaker, a free spirit, and her stories reflected her own view of life. And it didn't matter if people agree with her or not," said Lucy C. Acton, a former Evening Sun colleague who is now editor of Maryland Horse magazine.

Miss Novak was struck by a taxicab near the newspaper building in 1985 and retired a year later.

An inveterate world traveler, she also liked spending time on the Eastern Shore.

"She was fond of saying, 'Ask me where I haven't been,'" said Arlen B. Emory, a close friend of 40 years.

At Miss Novak's request, no funeral is planned.

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She is survived by three nieces and two nephews.


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