Grace Marie Darin, 88, activist in Charles Village, copy editor

December 03, 2002|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Grace Marie Darin, who coined the name and fostered the identity of Baltimore's Charles Village neighborhood while working about 35 years as a copy editor for The Evening Sun, died of heart failure Sunday at Keswick Multi-Care Center. She was 88 and had lived in the neighborhood for many years.

Miss Darin named the neighborhood near the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus in 1967 - an area historically known as Peabody Heights - and promoted it through a chatty mimeographed newsletter, The Charles Villager, that she published at her own expense from her two-story rowhouse on East 26th Street.

She used a manual typewriter to make the mimeograph stencils and hand-addressed the mailing envelopes, sending the newsletter to neighbors and friends for a decade.

"Thirty-five years after she started it all, we are still standing on her shoulders," said Francis "Gil" French, a past president of the Charles Village Civic Association. "Thanks to her vision, our neighborhood is the remarkable place it is today. She was a sweet, gracious and quiet lady who was a wonderful friend."

Miss Darin was born and raised in Virginia, Minn., a town of 13,000, where she was valedictorian of her high school class. She earned a degree with honors from the College of St. Teresa in Winona, Minn. She later said the experiences in small-town life that she gleaned while working at a radio station and newspaper in the 1930s provided the seed for the newsletter focusing on people news in her neighborhood.

In Minnesota, she was host of a small-town radio show called Terry Takes to the Air. "Terry" was Grace Darin.

She then moved from Minnesota to New York City, and earned a master's degree at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She won the school's Sackett Prize for her knowledge of libel law and was an alternate for a Pulitzer traveling fellowship.

Friends said she came to Baltimore in 1943, when newspapers were struggling with a shortage of trained personnel because many men were in military service. Miles H. Wolff, managing editor of The Evening Sun, had asked her Columbia professors for help, and they suggested her.

Miss Darin told Mr. Wolff that she had been a reporter, had received more training as one and wanted to be one. He asked her to try the copy desk for a while, and if it didn't work out, she could be a reporter.

"So she became, in 1943, the first woman to work as a full-time, permanent copy editor for The Evening Sun. She served on the desk during all the breaking news of World War II and all the tumultuous times of the midcentury, sometimes working it by herself in the early years," said David Cohn, who worked with her on the old evening newspaper and is now a copy editor for The Sun.

"She stayed on the desk for 35 years - from hot type to computers - until retiring in 1978," Mr. Cohn said. "Grace was a model of composure and dedication to her work of making sure we gave our readers the best, clearest, latest news we could. She kept her calm even during the worst of times on the desk, even while supervisors might be piling on work right before a deadline, and even when desk people came close to fisticuffs."

"Grace Darin understood more than most newspaper people that if you got the little things wrong, readers would suspect the big things. She seemed to know the name of every street in Baltimore - where it was and how to spell it. She knew middle initials. She knew where Arbutus ended and where Halethorpe began," said Ernest F. Imhoff, retired Sun reporter and longtime editor with The Evening Sun.

"She knew the ages, terms and pedigrees of politicians. She knew that Maryland became the seventh state in 1788 and its flag bears the arms of the Calvert and Crossland families," Mr. Imhoff said. "If she didn't know any of this, she looked it up. She did all of this quietly, without calling attention to herself."

A charter member of the newspaper's chapter of the American Newspaper Guild, she wrote dozens of essays and articles about her experiences in Baltimore, often about riding transit buses, using a hand-powered push mower or her numerous cats.

Having a long interest in cities and living in them, Miss Darin began a correspondence in the 1950s with Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She moved to the neighborhood she later christened Charles Village in 1948, after about five years in Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill.

"Charles Village began as a plot, hatched on a sunny Sunday morning January 1967 when a few neighbors met by chance at the intersection of Lovegrove Alley and Petunia Lane, near 26th and Charles streets," she said in a 1975 Sun profile. "There was a general feeling that some promotional effort was necessary to turn the community around, to combat lethargy and defeatism, to build a positive image."

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