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A Tribute to Mary Claycomb

by John Aquino on 02/04/21

I have just learned that my good friend Mary Claycomb passed away on November 26, 2020. I suspected something was wrong when we lost touch and, despite trying, I was unable to find her. I assumed that because she was a long-time resident of the Washington, D.C. area there would have been an obituary listing in the Washington Post if she had died. But I didn’t see one at the time and haven’t discovered one subsequently. So, I decided to write, not an obituary per se, but an appreciation of the existence of a remarkable woman.

I owe her a great deal. I met her in 1973 when I was working for the Eric Clearinghouse on Teacher Education, which was then headquartered on Dupont Circle in D.C. Mary had just come from New York City where she had worked in book publishing. She had been hired to initiate and expand publishing operations for the National Education Association. She was, however, not a stranger to the area, having been born in the District of Columbia as Mary Meade Harnett. She had graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., which gave her membership in the Harvard Club. Over the years, our work in publishing would bring us separately to Manhattan, sometimes for the same conferences, and she would take me to lunch at the Harvard Club there.

She had called me at ERIC to meet with her at the NEA offices because she thought my work with the ERIC education information database would help her in hers. With the approval of my supervisors, I supplied bibliographies for monographs NEA developed. She also invited me to write some of the monographs, which I did on teaching fantasy in the classroom, teaching film in language arts classes, and teaching science fiction as literature, the latter, believe it or not, was a controversial topic at the time. This opportunity gave me nationally distributed publications at a very young age.

I remember there was a row when the proofs came out of for the science fiction book. I had a long quote for which the H.G. Wells’ estate had given me permission to use. The ending of Wells’ 1936 film Things to Come is set in the far future. After a revolution has been foiled, Passworthy asks the protagonist Oswald Cabal if there is ever to be an age of happiness, is there ever to be any rest. Cabal answers. “Rest enough for the individual man, too much and too soon, and we call it death. But for man, no rest and no ending.” And the passage ended, “Is it this or that—all the Universe or nothingness. Which shall it be, Passworthy, which shall it be?”  The hierarchy of the publishing division decided that the quote had to be changed to, “Rest enough for the individual person, too much and too soon, and we call it death. But for man or woman, no rest and no ending.” As a young writer, I felt that the original wording was part of the period in which the work was written. I remember writing them, too glibly, that changing the Lord’s Prayer to “Our Father and Mother who art in heaven” would bring in a host of theological issues. I also argued that the changes not only destroyed the rhythm but would go badly with the Wells estate, which had insisted on approving the quote. The hierarchy responded that there was indeed a justifiable concern about altering the wording of a copyrighted quote, but then the only solution was to cut it out. The Wells’ quote was, however, meant to be the final passage of the book, and without it I had no ending. If I had to do it all today, being somewhat wiser, I probably would have handled it differently. But Mary backed me up, and the quote stayed in.

She was 17 years older. She seemed to like my company. Even when I left ERIC, we’d have lunch periodically and would talk on the phone. When her mother passed away in 1980, she told me that the lunches and calls with me helped her get through it. I knew she had married and divorced, which was the reason for her last name, but she never spoke of it.

She was very stylish in her dress and manner. She wore 1940 style wide-brimmed hats. Her ancestry on her mother’s side reached back to the founding of the country through the Page and Nelson families. I remember when she learned I was getting married and asked me to lunch. To celebrate, she proposed that she order a bottle of wine with the meal. She asked what I liked. I first tasted alcoholic beverages in college, but not wine. But my parents had let my teenage-self try sips of the Italian wine Asti Spumante, so I suggested that. Mary knew it was a dessert wine but didn’t correct me. The overabundance of sugar actually aggravated my nervousness on the ride up to New York for the wedding.

When I married, she invited us to dinners at her condominium and New Year’s Eve parties, not only Deborah and me but her parents when they came down for the holidays and my mother, who lived in the neighborhood. Mary was a fabulous hostess.

She served as a mentor for my own writing. I remember complaining about not getting published. Her reaction was, “You’re going to have to decide whether you want to be a good writer or just get published. They’re not the same thing.”

Political situations led to her leaving NEA. She decided to start her own publishing company. Deborah and I were among her investors. Mary issued a number of provocative titles: Missing Links by Vincent J. Begley, which was promoted as the first adoption search book written by a male; a collection of short fiction titled The Medical School: Stories of the Medically Macabre by G.P. Hosmer; and The Art of Railroading by Charles Paine, which was a reissue of an 1884 manual that Mary felt could prompt the application of railroad management advice in the corporate world, just The Art of War by Sun Tzu had brought lessons in military strategy to business situations. But starting a publishing imprint is a difficult task, and Mary became a consultant, even working on projects with the NEA.

Mary was a longtime board member of CINE, a nonprofit dedicated to documentary films that was especially noted for its annual awards. She cajoled me into using my lunch hour as a reviewer of award entries where she and I would sit in borrowed office space watching film after film on the VCR/DVD player. I learned a lot about documentary filmmaking, of course. This led to my being asked to join CINE’s board of directors, which I did for a number of years, unofficially offering legal advice on request. Mary contributed to the wider recognition of the importance of documentary films.

Her most fulfilling work was probably her 10 years as president of the Page Nelson Society, where she planned society events, wrote the society’s newsletter, managed grants to exemplary students in U.S. history at George Mason University, and helped support preservation activities of history sites in Virginia. She sent me the newsletter regularly, and I was amazed at the depth of her content. I went to a few society gatherings, and attendees were sure to tell me that Mary had brought new energy not only to the society but to the mission of preserving historical Virginian sites.

When I went to work in Crystal City, Va. to write for BNA, which became Bloomberg Law, which became Bloomberg Industry Group, the daily deadlines were such that we could only manage lunch once in the ten years I was there. The last time I heard from her was three years ago when she gently and compassionately responded to an email I sent informing her of the death of my mother. I received no response to subsequent emails and left messages on her machine that were never returned. When I mentioned this to some people, they were not surprised, suggesting that someone who took such great care in how she looked had possibly been reluctant to go out when it was more difficult to demonstrate the same care. In 2019, I sent a Christmas card and copies of recent published articles to her condominium in Chevy Chase that were returned with the note that the recipient no longer lived there. I have learned that she went to a nursing home where she ultimately died.

Her friend Mary Frost, who was a CINE board member with Mary, wrote today in an email that Mary had a keen understanding of human behavior and could spot a charlatan from a mile off. She was kind and caring, brilliant, and one of the most articulate and well-read people I have ever met. I have missed her and will do so even more now that I know she is gone.

Copyright 2021 by John T. Aquino

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