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Greenbelt woman commended for years of volunteer journalism


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Photo by Jason Ruiter. Mary Lou William, holding the plaque, stands for pictures by the County Council's public communications employees.

Photo by Jason Ruiter. Mary Lou William, holding the plaque, stands for pictures by the County Council's public communications employees.

Published on: Wednesday, March 13, 2013

By Jason Ruiter

About a quarter of Americans volunteer, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, but the median hours of their work — over a year — was 50 hours. Mary Lou Williamson, recently commended by the Prince George’s County Council for her community service, would average 80 hours per week in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, Williamson works a modest 30 hours per week.

Not only has she volunteered a prodigious amount of her time, but she has spent that time in an industry that’s straining to break even — journalism.

“She has served on the Greenbelt News Review for 50 years, of that, 40 years she was the editor,” said Councilwoman Ingrid Turner, District 4, who gave Williamson a commemorative plaque at the county’s weekly meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 19.

According to Williamson, only three jobs were available for women in the in 1960s: teacher, secretary and nurse, and she didn’t want to be any of those.

Born in Chicago, June 28, 1937, the same month and year that Greenbelt was established, Williamson moved to Maryland in 1962, recently married and ready to start a family.

Greenbelt “was built as a kind of experiment in low-income housing,” Williamson said, referring to the government program that created the city in 1937.

“No hospitals. … No PTAs. People were busy getting all of these things started. There were meetings every night of the week as people tried to solve their immediate problems,” Williamson said.

Several months after the city was established, the Greenbelt News Review was founded as a way for the community to interact.

Williamson recalls reading an early Greenbelt News Review story that reported 130 people at a public meeting had created 159 separate ideas to solve community issues.

“It was a very active citizenry,” Williamson said, who added that even today, it still is. “My kids are all self-starters. I think a lot of that comes from living in Greenbelt.”

Williamson’s work at a job that would unravel to be a half-century of raising community awareness started when her neighbor, the editor of the Greenbelt News Review, asked her for a copy of Robert Frost’s poems. She had no idea it would last as long as it did.

When asked why she put in so many volunteer hours, Williamson simply replied, “I have loved being in the middle of all this swirl of information, searching out the stories. I enjoyed those years.”

In 1970, the paper was sued for libel after reporting that people at a public meeting had characterized a legislator’s negotiating position as “blackmail.”

“(President of Greenbelt News Review) Al Skolnik went to the Washington Post and asked their attorneys to take the case pro bono,” Williamson said. “They assigned their young lawyer to the case and it made his name.”

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which reversed the trial and appellate courts’ decision in favor of the Greenbelt News Review, noting “the paper was performing its wholly legitimate function as a community newspaper when it published full reports of the public debates in its news columns.”

“Not to brag, but I don’t think (there are other papers like this one.) … I think their journalism often isn’t as good as ours because we have a lot of institutional knowledge. We understand what the issues are,” Williamson said, who added that four other people have been on the staff for many years.

Williamson once publically asked former City Manager Jim Gazey at his retirement party to work for the Greenbelt News Review. He accepted.

Having these people, Williamson said, adds to an incredible knowledge of the town.

“Williamson is a leader and friend,” Turner said at the hearing. “She is family oriented, with a spirit of provider and caretaker.”

Holding the congratulatory plaque given to her by County Council, Williamson joked, “Someone asked me if I wanted to run for City Council, I said, ‘I don’t need to. My position is of importance to everyone.’”

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