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February 8, 2014

PSU beat writers had no greater friend than Mary Jo

Sports information directors don't have it easy. They are the intermediaries between reporters and coaches and they catch enough flak from both sides to make theirs among the more stressful jobs in academia. The good ones don't let it show.

Mary Jo Haverbeck, who died in January at age 74, was one of the good ones.

No, make that one of the great ones. I don't think anyone has ever performed his or her job with more grace and good cheer than Mary Jo. She always had a smile, always was happy to see you wandering through the media room. If she liked something you'd written, she was quick with a compliment. If she didn't like it - and I certainly produced my share of clunkers as a young reporter who didn't know nearly as much as I thought I did - she held her tongue. She made a generation of reporters feel welcome and valued at Penn State, whether their credential said "Philadelphia Inquirer" or "Daily Collegian." She knew all the people in women's basketball who mattered, and when those people showed up in Rec Hall for a Lady Lion game, she made sure to introduce them to you. In so doing, she made you feel like you mattered.

Mary Jo had gotten her bachelor's degree in education from Delaware in 1961, and she earned a master's degree in journalism from Penn State in 1976 while doing public relations work for the university, initially on a volunteer basis and later as an associate sports information director. She had a vast knowledge of women's sports, particularly women's basketball, and she loved sharing it. If you needed a document or a photo or an old newspaper clipping for a story you were working on, she wouldn't just point you in the right direction, she would call up Pattee Library and make sure it was waiting for you in the archives when you got there.

Even after retiring from Penn State in 1999, Mary Jo continued to share her expertise. She taught news writing classes for Penn State's College of Communications and covered the Lady Lions for a number of publications, including Blue White Illustrated. When Coquese Washington became Penn State's head coach in 2007, Mary Jo was one of the first to interview her.

"Mary Jo and I struck up kind of a friendship over my time here, and we would talk on occasion about the history of the game, the history of the program and the history and the development of media coverage of women in sports," Washington said. "We had a number of conversations about those kinds of things. I have a tremendous respect for her impact on our program, and on Penn State women's sports in general, because she did a tremendous amount for women in sports."

During the past month, Mary Jo has been remembered as one of the pioneers in a movement that changed the face of college athletics. She's been celebrated as a Hall of Famer, the first woman to be enshrined by the College Sports Information Directors of America and the first recipient of CoSIDA's Trailblazer Award in 2001. All of those eulogies are true and worthy of remembrance.

But when I think of Mary Jo, I think of the encouragement she gave me as a young writer and the many kind words she shared with me in the years that followed.

Mary Jo never talked much about herself. Maybe, after a career spent making others look good, she didn't feel comfortable being at the center of the conversation. As a result, I don't think any of us really understood the degree to which her health had declined over the past few months.

In early December, she sent me an email in which she explained that she would not be able to cover the Lady Lions full-time anymore but that she was hoping to attend as many games and pressers as possible throughout the season. "That part of my life is uplifting to me," she wrote. "I have tremendous joy being a member of the group covering Lady Lion basketball."

Rest assured, Mary Jo, the feeling was mutual.



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