Beauty is in pages of Dundalk newspaper

Photo: The Eagle has featured a `Mystery Beauty' in its pages every week for 30 years.

November 17, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

There she was, normal person Sue Gruhn, minding her own secretarial business at the Dundalk campus of the Community College of Baltimore County -- which had never produced any known beauty queens before this year.

Then, the photographer from the Dundalk Eagle came into her office. She knew him, all right. His work is famous in these parts.

"Roland," Gruhn said to Roland Dorsey, "put the camera down." Put the camera down, and no one will get hurt. But Dorsey, a six-year Eagle veteran, has a job to do every week: find a local woman to photograph for the newspaper's "Mystery Beauty" feature. Each Thursday in each of the paper's 30 years, a "Mystery Beauty" has graced the inside pages.

"People might consider it a little goofy, but our readers don't seem bothered about it," says editor Wayne Laufert. "Tradition wins out."

So, the following Thursday, Gruhn's mug was right there on page 6 of The Eagle. "It turned out pretty good, considering I didn't want it taken," Gruhn says. "The person I live with bought five copies."

Pursuant to Eagle rules, readers could call the next day (Friday, between 2-3 p.m. only) and identify the beauty. Winners, as usual, win a free shampoo and set from any number of local hair salons. Friends did identify Gruhn, as her weeklong reign ended as the Mystery Beauty. But her life had changed.

"I had one person ask me for an autograph," she says, "but it was a person here at work."

A feature such as "Mystery Beauty" can only exist in small-town newspapers, which are the true alternative weeklies in America.

Tucked in the pages of this slick community paper, "Mystery Beauty" feels organic and old-fashioned (i.e., politically incorrect). There has never been a "Mystery Hunk" among the 1,500 or so beauties.

"Although one year we ran a picture of a guy in drag around Halloween," says Laufert.

Honestly, who wants to see mystery male "beauties" in their hometown paper?

Except for women, of course. Plus, "I don't want to photograph any guys," Dorsey says. "I want to photograph women."

To qualify to become a mystery beauty, subjects must meet rigorous criteria. They must be female. They must live in the Dundalk-Edgemere area. They must agree to be pictured.

"It's someone who won't mind having their picture taken," Dorsey says.

Which sounds easy enough, except for that woman a few years back whose husband refused to allow her to be a mystery beauty. No way, the husband said. Her old boyfriend would find her.

"We had a backup," Dorsey says.

He corrals the unsuspecting beauties while on his rounds photographing community members and events and the like. Like the time last month he was at Grange Elementary School in Dundalk, where he met volunteer Rebecca Custer. Excuse me, he said. Had she ever been a Mystery Beauty? Eventually, Custer stopped laughing.

"No, hon," Custer told Dorsey. "The mystery is going to be where the beauty is." But when fame calls, the would-be famous must answer. "So, I went for it," says Custer, who received the traditional ribbing from friends and family. And five callers to the paper won free shampoos and sets. The beauty of "Mystery Beauty" is that everyone wins.

Everyone, once in his life, needs to visit a community newspaper. The Eagle is housed in a lovely home off Dundalk Avenue across from the dearly departed Strand Theater.

Only at a small newspaper will a house cat named Chelsea perch on your neck like a stole. At command central -- a six-line telephone -- classified ad representative Stephanie Cooper fields calls for Mystery Beauty, which also goes by the names All-American Beauty, The Beauty Queen and Queen for the Day.

People can't wait until Friday to identify the woman, so they call a day early, Cooper says. Or sometimes a week late. Friday, you understand, I'll be on vacation or in the hospital or that's my crossing guard shift. Cooper (whose daughter, Vicki, is a former Mystery Beauty) listens sympathetically but never budges. It's Friday, 2-3 p.m., or nothing. Sadly, she says, the occasional Mystery Beauty goes unnoticed.

"I feel bad when no one identifies her," Cooper says. At least her mom or best friend could call in.

To search for past beauties, editor Laufert stops what he's doing (only putting out the week's paper) to lead the way upstairs to the newspaper "morgue," where every issue is stored. "Please allow these dead soldiers to rest in peace," a handmade sign says. Laufert excuses himself. We miss Chelsea already.

Among these 1,500 dead soldiers are as many mystery beauties, dating back to the very first Eagle on May 15, 1969. After the "Lake Emala Polluted" and "Local Girl Writes Nixon, Gets Answer" stories, Patti Hartlove takes First Mystery Beauty honors (Oh, where art thou my Hartlove?) Also from the Class of '69, a Mrs. Tekla Coffey, "a German war bride," had been immortalized.

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