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.
Former editors say Ms. Corey was never driven to rise through the newsroom for the power she could wield. "She wanted to do things for good reasons, for good journalistic reasons," said John Carroll, a former editor of The Sun and The Los Angeles Times.
Timothy A. Franklin, The Sun's former editor and now a managing editor for Bloomberg News in Washington, called Ms. Corey "one of the most creative journalists that I've ever worked with. She always found new and different ways to tell ordinary stories. ... She inspired people with her ideas and passion for the craft. People responded to her because they respected her and didn't want to let her down."
Under her leadership, The Sun was named Newspaper of the Year and best website by the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. Competing against the region's largest newspapers, such as The Washington Post, The Sun claimed 27 first-place awards last year. Its work was also recognized by professional groups representing investigative, sports, features, business, education and real estate journalists, as well as the White House News Photographers Association.
In addition to reviving the Sun Magazine, Ms. Corey led the creation of new sections such as Scene, brought back editorial cartoonist KAL, and bolstered coverage of medicine, science and the federal workplace.
Ms. Corey delighted in a clever turn of phrase and reveled in daily coverage of ongoing stories, whether it involved the corruption trial of a politician or the Ravens' postseason runs. She was proud of The Sun's investigative projects and the results they netted: changes in how Baltimore police reported rape cases, for example, and the recent overhaul of the city's troubled speed camera program. She also led the development of the Sun Investigates blog to highlight the news organization's watchdog reporting.
Many of these initiatives came as The Sun's owner, Tribune Co., underwent reorganization, emerging from bankruptcy this year. In ways large and small, Ms. Corey worked to keep the newsroom focused and forward-looking throughout the process.
For example, while maintaining a newsroom tradition of speeches and a cake for departing employees, Ms. Corey added a welcoming "snack party" for new hires, who got to pick a favorite treat.
"It's hard to image someone with a better mix of skills to lead a newspaper," said Luke Broadwater, The Sun's City Hall reporter. "Mary had strong journalistic credentials and sensibilities, but also had the people skills and business acumen necessary to be an effective leader. Mary will be sorely, sorely missed."
Broadwater remembered how Corey had previously called him to tell him he didn't get a job he'd applied for "but did it in such a nice way, and was so encouraging, that it didn't embitter me but somehow made me want to work for The Sun more.
"We stayed in touch, and a couple years later, I finally got to work with her," he said. "I only wish I would've had more time to learn from her."
Corey proved to be a model for others in the newsroom, sometimes in ways she likely didn't imagine.
"When I was tapped to be a feature columnist in the early 1990s, I had been on the sports copy desk for four years -- in jeans and sweat shirts," said columnist Susan Reimer. "When I knew I would be moving to features, I checked out Mary right away, to see what I needed to look like. I immediately went out and bought a black pencil skirt, black tights and black suede pumps and colorful blazers. That was Mary. Pure style. And I wanted to look like her.
"When she was named editor, we had a party for her and I got pink paper supplies and pink balloons that said, 'It's a Girl!'" she said. "The women in the newsroom were so proud of her. And she would go on to demonstrate such strength of vision and so much leadership and such a tireless work ethic. But she was always there, too, for a good gossip and ready with a box of tissues if you were having a bad day."
Ms. Corey was born in New York and moved to the Baltimore area as a child. After Dulaney High School, where she played field hockey, she went to Notre Dame of Maryland under an academic scholarship that businessman and philanthropist Henry J. Knott Sr., created in honor of his wife, Marion Burk Knott. Ms. Corey graduated magna cum laude in 1985.
Despite Ms. Corey's prominence in the city as The Sun's top editor — The Daily Record named her one of its 100 most influential Marylanders in 2011 — she shied away from drawing attention to herself. Still, she was unfailingly gracious in social events, gamely agreeing to the speeches and award ceremonies that came with her position, even as she maintained a largely private life.
She was devoted to her extended family and friends.
"She always had the right words, the time to listen to our stories and an abundance of love to give," said niece Caitlin Demchuk, 24.
Though childless herself, Ms. Corey loved spending time with her nieces and nephews — she took one, Kyle Quaranta, on a vacation to Honolulu this summer, where they spied celebrities such as Kanye West and Kim Kardashian at their resort — as well as her friends' children.
Cousin Mary Lindmark remains grateful that Ms. Corey, with all her professional responsibilities, rushed to her side in St. Louis in 2010 when her husband, Marvin, died unexpectedly.
"Mary was born the day before me, so we've always been close," Ms. Lindmark said. "When you sit down with Mary, she would talk about herself for about a minute, and then you found you were talking about yourself the rest of the time. I thought that was her reporter's training, but it really was that she was a compassionate person."
Corey's brother-in-law Michael J. Demchuk spent some time Tuesday revisiting a piece Corey wrote for her college literary publication, "Damozel," in Spring 1983. It was her musings on the challenge of writing a humorous short story in just the one hour of a class.
"Life is such a funny thing. You think you have it all together and everything seems to be going along just fine, when, bang, somebody comes and knocks it all out of whack," Corey wrote. "I never would have guessed when I woke up this morning to singing birds and a clear blue sky that by afternoon my college career would be over and my new aspiration would be to collect garbage in the city. Yes, life -- the devilish tricks it can play on you."
"I think that it captures the spirit of [Tuesday's] and the last two years' events quite succinctly," Demchuk said, "and credit should flow to the author of that short story, who her family is so proud that she never had to pursue that career with the sanitation department."
Ms. Corey lived in a cozy Wyman Park rowhouse with an inviting porch swing, hydrangeas and roses that bloomed bountifully in the summer, and a changing lineup of pets. That included an excitable part-Papillon named Lily, whom Ms. Corey brought to work when she spent the night in the newsroom during the February 2010 "snowmageddon." Her last tweet this winter was simply a picture of a therapy dog brought in to cheer her during a hospitalization.
Her love of rescue dogs in particular led to a stint as The Sun's pet blogger beginning in February 2009.
To introduce herself on the blog, she introduced her dog, sweet Gracie, who had recently died. Gracie's human remembered picking her up 16 years previously at the Maryland SPCA, where the card on her cage, "Found in Hampden, terrier mix," hardly described how the mutt would weave itself into Ms. Corey's life.
"She will make even your best days better," Ms. Corey imagined the card saying. "She will comfort you through the worst of what comes. You'll be giving her a bath on a Saturday morning when the phone will ring, and the voice on the other end will tell you that your father is no longer alive.
"When you return the engagement ring, she will sit with you on the front porch as the news sinks in. And when the lump you felt turns out to be malignant, you'll leave work and go home because the thing you most want to do is hug your dog and take her for a walk."
It was a rare public revelation from Ms. Corey, but reflected her soft-hearted yet clear-eyed outlook.
When her companion, Paul Mattix, battled a recurrence of lymphoma, Ms. Corey studied research papers to find the most knowledgeable specialists and the most promising treatments, all the while caring for him until his death in 2005. Similarly, she and her friends rallied around Alice Steinbach, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Sun writer, as she struggled through the cancer that would claim her life last year.
Friends recall how she helped Ms. Steinbach move to Seattle during her final year, only to see her return to Roland Park Place near Ms. Corey's home. When Ms. Corey couldn't fit Ms. Steinbach's huge wooden dining table in her car to drive it over to her friend's apartment, she started rolling it down the street — by herself until a neighbor jumped in to help.
"Mary, that is you," her friend Ms. Banisky recalled telling her. "Indomitable and a little crazy."
That Ms. Corey herself would be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 brought heartbreak to her family and friends. In typical fashion, though, she dove into the research, and maintained a determined and optimistic front through multiple surgeries and treatments.
"She had a kind of very brave curiosity about her disease," said Dr. John Fetting of Johns Hopkins, Ms. Corey's oncologist. "She was fearless in seeking out information, advice and ways to treat it.
"And she was such a dear and friendly person about it all. You always wanted to help Mary. Everyone on our team here was: 'What can we do to help?' She had this quality, that people wanted to be on her team."
Dr. Fetting added, "It was totally my privilege to be on her team. She was one of our good human beings and we need people like that."
In an introduction to a 2010 Sun special section on breast cancer awareness, Ms. Corey wrote that her approach to life had changed.
"After five months of chemotherapy and five surgeries, I'm now learning what it's like to live in the hereafter," she wrote, "and how happiness becomes part decision, part act of defiance."
She repeatedly returned to the newsroom, stubble of hair in the process of growing back or puffy from medications, but in bright spirits that allayed her co-workers' concerns. Back in her office overlooking Calvert Street, she seemed unstoppable, until the final bout.
But she was well aware of the severity of her particular strain of breast cancer, and the real possibility of a foreshortened life.
For her birthday in November 2011, Ms. Corey booked space at Gertrude's at the Baltimore Museum of Art and hosted a girls-only party, something she likened to a wedding reception minus the groom. Under twinkling white lights, she mingled with old friends and family, and former and current colleagues, all of whom were under strict (if occasionally ignored) orders to bring no presents.
After a festive night of wine and crab cakes, silly songs and silently offered wishes as their host blew out her birthday candles, guests each received a goodie bag from Ms. Corey.
She is survived by her mother, Mary C. Corey; sisters Kathleen M. Demchuk and Margaret A. Quaranta; brothers-in-law Michael J. Demchuk and Andre Quaranta; nieces Caitlin B. Demchuk and Ashley M. Demchuk; and nephews Justin A. Quaranta and Kyle M. Quaranta. Her father, Henry W. Corey, died in 1993.