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Obituary of Mary Kimbrough: Trailblazing reporter, prolific author

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 22, 2009 - When Mary Kimbrough received the St. Louis Media Halls of Fame Award in 2007, she told the St. Louis Journalism Review, "I cherish the memories of my favorite interviews.” By the time she died of infirmities on Thursday (Aug. 20, 2009) at her home at McKnight Place Extended Care in St. Louis, Ms. Kimbrough had amassed a treasure trove of those memories. She was 94.

Ms. Kimbrough, the daughter of a college professor and a music teacher, was born Nov. 27, 1914, in Lebanon, Tenn., and grew up in Tulsa, Okla. After graduating from the University of Tulsa, she did graduate work in journalism at the University of Oklahoma. She then began her career as a real-life Lois Lane, perhaps a little less feisty but a lot smarter. She entered the male-dominated newsrooms of major newspapers, beginning in the 1930s at the Tulsa Tribune, earning $20 a week.

After arriving in St. Louis, Ms. Kimbrough worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the now defunct Gardner Advertising agency, the St. Louis Star-Times and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, from which she retired.

“Hire me if you want to close down your newspaper,” Ms. Kimbrough’s niece, Mary Gould, said her aunt often joked.

Not so, said one of her closest friends, Verna Smith, whom she met in 1946, and with whom she co-chaired the Missouri Press Women’s Quest Awards for 24 years.

Ms. Kimbrough “was the epitome of an outstanding journalist with an unequaled sense of humor,” Smith said. “She never said anything bad about anybody; she just had a joy of living.”

Ms. Kimbrough covered such diverse topics as racial equality, women in prison, riding in a cage with a gorilla and having her hair done in an airplane. For many years she wrote the Globe’s annual “Man of the Year” tribute.

She told her niece that “there’s a story in everything” -- even a park bench.

Gould recalled: “I learned that when she was a little girl, there was a bench on the University of Tulsa campus where her father worked, where she’d sit and wait for him and wonder what that bench would have to say about all the people who had gone back and fourth past it and sat on it. That’s when, she said, she got the idea she wanted to be a writer.”

Ms. Kimbrough wrote with sensitivity, imagination and panache. 

In a 1977 Globe-Democrat story about the efforts of Rev. Maurice B. McNamee, S.J., to save a landmark on Saint Louis University’s campus, she wrote: “Ghosts tread softly through the spacious rooms of Cupples House, but they are a lively breed of spirits in their born-again home. ‘Father Mac’ would have it no other way.” She called McNamee a "bulldog in a Roman collar.”

Ms. Kimbrough was the author of 16 books, including three written during her retirement. Her work included "The Muny: St. Louis' Outdoor Theater"; "Movers and Shakers: Men Who Have Shaped Saint Louis," with David R. Brown and Justin L. Faherty; "Victory Without Violence: The First Ten Years of the St. Louis Committee of Racial Equality," with Margaret W. Dagen; "The Children's Home Society of Missouri, Its First 100 Years," and the memoirs of her former colleague, Globe-Democrat publisher G. Duncan Bauman, "Behind the Headlines: Stories about People and Events Which Shaped St. Louis."

Ms. Kimbrough was a longtime member of the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis and a former national president of Theta Sigma Phi (now Association for Women in Communications). She was the first woman to receive the Media Person of the Year Award from the Press Club in 1992. She also received the Virginia Betts White Quest Lifetime Award from Missouri Press Women-St. Louis Chapter, an award she helped to originate for the Missouri affiliate 28 years ago, the National Federation of Press Women’s Communicator of Achievement in 2004, and she was inducted into St. Louis Media Halls of Fame in 2007.

She never retired in any real sense of the word. She remained committed to mentoring aspiring writers of all ages and she taught writing classes for the young and the old. She continued her own writing and volunteered for many worthwhile efforts, including the press archives at the St. Louis Public Library, which has accumulated a massive file on Ms. Kimbrough, one of St. Louis’ best known reporters and authors.

“There was no place we could go in St. Louis without people knowing her,” Gould said.

Ms. Kimbrough who never married or had children, was a member of Christian Science Church. In recent years, she had lived at the Brentmoor Retirement Community in Ladue, but she spent most of her life in University City.

She was preceded in death by her parents, Charles H. Kimbrough and Annette Haydon Kimbrough; her brother, Haydon McDonnold, and her sister, Annette Kimbrough Gould.

In addition to her niece and namesake, Mary, of St. Louis, her survivors include another niece, Annette (Fred) Tromly of Toronto, Canada, and a nephew, David Gould, of Houston, Texas.

Ms. Kimbrough’s private family services will be in Tulsa, where she will be buried near her parents and her sister. A memorial in St. Louis is being planned for a later date. Memorial contributions in Ms. Kimbrough’s name may be made to the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis , P.O. Box 410522, Creve Coeur, Mo. 63141, and Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club , 4245 North Kingshighway Boulevar., St. Louis, Mo. 63115.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.