I’m not exactly sure when it was that I first met Mary Jo Haverbeck, but I’m pretty sure about the where and the circumstances.
I know it was in the media room — officially known as the Green Room — at the Bryce Jordan Center and I’m positive that Mary Jo walked over and introduced herself to me.
It was like I’m sure she had done so many times with so many journalists over the years. And like so many other of my peers, I was immediately drawn to one of the nicest people that I had ever come across in the business.
That’s why today is such a sad day.
Mary Jo, 74, passed away late Monday night, and for anyone who knew her it is a deep loss. Certainly covering a women’s basketball game at Penn State will never be the same.
For those that didn’t have the pleasure of meeting her, Mary Jo may have been just as important to women’s athletics at Penn State as any of the great players and coaches who were on the field and the sidelines.
Mary Jo was a pioneer in sports information and marketing, and her success is one of the reasons women’s sports attracted more attention at Penn State than other places. From when she started as a part-timer at Penn State in 1974, until she retired in 1999, Mary Jo championed women’s athletics at the university and made an impact both locally and nationally.
“I knocked on doors to sell advertising for women’s programs, and walked the streets talking to people, trying to get their support,” Mary Jo told Town & Gown in 2000. “I visited newspapers, TV and radio stations. When they told me, ‘We don’t have time or space to cover women’s athletics,’ I just kept pitching good story ideas to them. I think people want to read interesting stories about athletes, whether it’s a man playing basketball or a woman playing tennis.”
She lost many battles, but ultimately made strides for those sports and for the women who worked in sports information and journalism.
Mary Jo won many national awards for her work at Penn State. She also served on several national boards, taught journalism at PSU and wrote for several publications.
She became the first woman to be inducted in the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame in 1995, became the first woman to win CoSIDA’s prestigious Art Ward honor in 2000 and received its Trailblazer Award in 2001.
Honestly, I never knew anything about those honors because in her humility, Mary Jo, or MJ as we all called her, would have never brought them up.
No, the Mary Jo I knew was a normal lady who had an abnormal love for the game of basketball.
Mary Jo and I were kindred spirits of sorts. Following her retirement at Penn State she had stayed active in the game and began writing as a correspondent for Blue White Illustrated. She even served as an unofficial SID for the State College High School girls’ program for several years.
MJ and I were old school.
In the days when digital tape recorders were becoming popular, Mary Jo and I spurned them. I used a hand-held recorder that took a full-sized cassette tape (still do as a matter of fact to back up the digital) and Mary Jo had a full-sized recorder about the length of a loaf of bread that had a stand-up microphone. Every midweek news conference and PSU postgame, those ancient pieces of technology would be lined up next to each other.
And they worked just as well as any of the digital devices until MJ’s microphone gave up the ghost.
Mary Jo wasn’t too old school not to appreciate the use of the Internet, having established an online newsletter, website and blog.
On most game days at Penn State, Mary Jo would arrive early. When I usually walked in about an hour before tip-off, Mary Jo would have a place at the table saved for me. Over lunch or dinner, we’d talk about the game that was on last night, the game to come, the national trends and our observations. If she liked something you wrote, she’d tell you and it meant a lot coming from her.
Mary Jo would introduce me to visiting media, especially the television analysts. I remember a long conversation with former Illinois coach Theresa Grentz, who was doing color for the Big Ten Network. Just a few seasons prior, Grentz had bristled at one of my postgame questions, but now — thanks to Mary Jo — we were chuckling over some mashed potatoes and a big cookie.
And it wasn’t all about basketball. Mary Jo wanted to know about your family, how work was going and what you thought about the football game.
After that, we’d head to our spots on press row. Whether it was intentional or not, Penn State women’s basketball SID Kris Petersen put Mary Jo and I next to each other. Mary Jo and I would share stats, criticize coaches and players for the next two hours.
If he was there, WBLF’s Todd Brown would plop between us. We’d enjoy ribbing him about his ritual of getting a soft pretzel. The bantering could make even the most monotonous games fun.
We’d trudge down through the stands with about two minutes to go. We’d head to the interview room, me taking my seat on the far left of the front row with Mary Jo a row directly behind, to ask our questions.
In a business that’s often cold and unfriendly, you welcomed MJ’s smile, infectious laugh and kind heart.
And it was missing a lot this season.
For the first time since I met her, Mary Jo wasn’t around very much. She missed several games, which wasn’t like her.
We knew that she had been caring for a friend, which often meant hospital visits. We also knew that a water heater problem wreaked havoc at her home.
She said that she had suffered a fall in October. She mentioned it had been a tough winter, but Mary Jo wasn’t someone to complain.
We covered our last game together when the Lady Lions knocked off No. 24 Texas A&M on Dec. 15. She was at the mid-week news conference three days later.
Little did I know, that would be the last time I would see MJ.
She was more ill than she let on. An operation did not succeed. She hung on a lot longer than was expected — feisty to the end.
I’ll be heading to the Jordan Center on Wednesday afternoon. I’ll ask the usual questions, but it won’t be the same.
God bless you, MJ. You will be missed.