Greg Bassett: Reporter Mary Corddry left a legacy

Mary Corddry died on Christmas Eve. Probably only a handful of people remember her, but the service she provided several times every week over three decades merits a thorough remembrance.

Corddry was the Eastern Shore correspondent for the Baltimore Sunpapers. For many years that made her the most prominent newspaper reporter who covered the Eastern Shore. She garnered bylines on each major and minor issue of the day, explaining to people in Baltimore and all over the state just how the Eastern Shore works and what its sometimes eccentric population was up to.

Ocean City was of special interest to her editors back on North Calvert Street and Corddry had no difficulty finding stories from the beach town. Her best years of reporting came in the 1970s, when the resort’s economy was all about building condos anywhere and everywhere — and fast.

That led to news stories about Miami Beach-style vacation high rises, massive trailer parks and apartments constructed on sand dredged from Assawoman Bay, and condos built on land which just hours before had been a wetlands habitat teeming with wildlife.

The clashes between environmentalists, regulators and the builder/developers made for good newspaper copy.

The resort’s cast of interesting characters also helped — the likes of Harry Kelley (the mayor), Jim Caine (the big developer), Hugh Cropper (the former mayor), Russell Hickman (the State Delegate) and Jack Sanford (the former State Senator) made her stories reflective, informative and sometimes comical in their presentation of a boom time.

Mary Corddry.

Corddry covered every story of note for the entire region. From the aftermath of the H. Rapp Brown trials, to the decision to build a state prison near Princess Anne, to battles over historic district designations in St. Michaels and Easton, Corddry was on the scene. Added to that were probably 40 or more hurricanes and storm events (all of them written with a natural drama) as if they were the first storm to ever encounter the Eastern Shore.

Another specialty was murder trial coverage, which Corddry provided wall to wall. The tragedy of the event was never lost on her, and that always came out in her writing. Her coverage of murders of Troy Krause and Rusty Marine at the hands of Elwood Leroy Leuschner was equally horrifying and mesmerizing.

Most of the local reporters looked up to and sought to emulate Corddry, whose breezy writing style was more like a letter home than a news story for the masses. I, of course, was so immature that I only resented her. The way I saw it, she would parachute in and write a massive piece that capitalized on our previously published reporting.

The fact that everything she wrote was 50 times better than anything I could craft was — back then – lost on me.

She also had sources the rest of us reporters could never win. When someone important wanted to leak something big, they would direct it to Mary Corddry of the all-powerful Baltimore Sun, not the measly Salisbury Daily Times.

That would result in a next-day summons from the boss where the first question was: “Why didn’t we have this?”

Former Times reporter Bill Robinson recalled “Mary routinely scooping the staff of the daily.” Reporter/Photographer Brice Stump seconded that and then described Corddry as “all business.”

She was indeed all business and deadly serious while on the beat. Though she rarely attended so-called “press cattle-calls,” where a gang of reporters was being thrown the same news bone, when she was there she didn’t exactly socialize. In fact, I never once spoke to her.

Yet, for more than a dozen years, I can safely claim to having read everything she ever wrote. I remain in awe to this day.

Corddry’s power was such that politicians were always aware of her presence. She would always arrive at public night meetings late (not until last week did I learn why), stand to the side of the room (she rarely sat) and began scribbling fast in a small notebook.

Once at an Ocean City Council meeting, I saw her come in and take a place along the wall. The council was discussing some mundane issue regarding parking, but as soon as Corddry took her place the seven men and one woman on the dais subtly reacted. Suddenly everyone was sitting up straighter and their eyes were focused squarely on their briefing books.

These elected officials, who minutes before had been mumbling their and meandering in their thoughts, were a bunch of local Daniel Websters, pontificating with eloquence about towing fees and car impound requirements.

All because The Baltimore Sun reporter was In The House.

Born as Mary Umbarger in Harford County, she married George H. Corddry Jr. from Snow Hill. The couple moved to Salisbury in 1957, when George was named principal of the new Wicomico Senior High School. For years and years, the Corddrys lived in a little house at 228 Middle Boulevard in Salisbury, where they raised five children.

Mary was ahead of her time as a working mother, writing stories for one of America’s largest newspapers by day but being there to ensure a family dinner every evening. That was why Mary was late to those night meetings — dinner and homework help came first.

As she later wrote in a brief memoir: “This was a watershed period for women, a period when this woman at least felt compelled by lifelong conditioning to produce sit-down dinners for seven every evening no matter what the challenge of deadlines and breaking stories.”

Mary Corddry was 93 when she died two weeks ago. She was 62 when she left The Sun in 1987, and then went on to write some historical books, mostly focusing on Ocean City. She returned to Harford County in 1990.

In her obituary in The Sun, a point was made that Corddry’s coverage of development on the Shore through the 1970s emboldened environmentalists and placed regulators and politicians on guard. As evidence, the writer pointed to Sussex County in Delaware, long a Wild West of developmental practices.

Drive across the Lower Shore and Sussex and you’ll see it’s true — the places look different. Let’s give thanks to “all business” Mary Corddry for some of that.

 

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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