An overdue tribute to Libbie Powell

December 05, 2004|by Allan Powell

(Editor's note: In October, the Washington County chapter of the American Association of University Women held its monthly meeting at The Herald-Mail. AAUW officers asked that the program be a history of the paper, including some information on the late Elizabeth "Libbie" Powell, who served as Women's Page Editor of The Daily Mail for 30 years until her death in 1984 at age 68. Her brother, Allan Powell, shared some memories at that time, memories that he has adapted into a column here.)

Libbie Powell was a truly remarkable person. Since her death, her talent as a writer has earned her the recognition she deserves. It is true that the term "remarkable" can be overworked, and that it is vague as to qualities intended. However, some background about Libbie will show why use of the term is justified in her case.

Libbie was one of six girls and four boys raised in what is now called an "economically challenged" family.


The ravages of the Great Depression took their toll. Each girl left home at about the age of 13 to live in the home of a wealthy benefactor. They were expected to do menial tasks before and after school in return for food, shelter, clothing (used) and a small wage.

Naturally, they were thankful for the benefits resulting from this somewhat symbiotic relationship. Then too, it was of value to observe how well-advantaged people dealt with the daily routine of living. It is doubtful if the bachelor's and master's degrees that my siblings earned could have happened without the mutual cooperation of all concerned.

Libbie was the exception. Having no college classes, she was self-taught, becoming good at crafting eyewitness accounts of social events and interviewing prominent persons. Her apartment had piles of avant garde-style magazines and city newspapers that she studied as models. By tireless effort, she improved her skills.

How many young ladies would suddenly give up the security of living in the home of a wealthy patron to apply for a job for which they had little training?

Libbie worked as a receptionist in the office of a well-known doctor for several years. But, at some point in the early 1950s, she made the courageous decision to try something radically different. Persistence and native intelligence combined to work in her favor.

Libbie was witness to much adversity as she matured. A large family and low income brought about many forced relocations to new neighborhoods. Changes in schools and separation from former friends followed. A weaker person might have suffered crushing ego damage, but Libbie persevered.

One experience must have been traumatic for Libbie. For about a week, the family's furniture was placed on the sidewalk on South Potomac Street, exposed to wind and rain. True, the girls were not then at home, but they were keenly aware of what was going on. We four boys slept on bags of sawdust inside the nearby barn of the Hagerstown Dairy. Our remedy was to join the Navy as we each turned 17 years of age.

Perhaps a word about the upside and the downside of the experience of noblesse oblige is in order.

Some who have served in intimate association with well-to-do families take such a connection in stride and move on to better times. They harbor no feelings of resentment, nor do they develop feelings of inferiority. Moreover, they are thankful that they were exposed to the habits and values of the host family.

Libbie's inner strength kept her focused on her goals. She did not look back and bemoan her fate. However, upon reflection, it would be hard to dispute the notion that her experiences had spurred her ambition.

Looking at the world from the bottom up is considerably different than looking at the world from the top down. Scars are like a nail driven into a board, then pulled out. The nail is gone but the mark, however slight, remains.

Libbie was good at what she did. She and her Volkswagen convertible were everywhere. Even now, it frequently happens that when I'm introduced to a total stranger, they volunteer a compliment on Libbie's work.

During World War II, when five of our family were scattered over the globe, Libbie took the time to correspond with each one and pass on the latest news. Sister Helen served as an Army nurse in Europe. Brother Clarence served as a radioman and gunner on a Grumman torpedo plane. Brothers Robert and David were aboard battleships at sea. I was a gunner on a PBY5A flying boat in the Solomon Islands. This kept Libbie pretty busy.

This tribute is long overdue on my part. Honesty requires an admission of regret that I did not compliment her enough for the amount and quality of her workmanship as a writer. But, as they say, "what goes around comes around." Having authored several books, many journal articles and hundreds of newspaper columns, one becomes painfully aware that others may not read your work - indeed, they may dislike it intensely. I am sure Libbie would forgive me.

In closing, it is proper to note again that Libbie was a credit to her profession. I have never heard that she talked to others about how to achieve excellence in reporting the news.

Nonetheless, they could learn much from her example. Her dedication, boundless energy and drive for self-improvement made Libbie a worthy model for any aspiring journalist.

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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