Ellen Hawks, 83, columnist and feature writer for Sun

November 22, 2005|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

Ellen M. Hawks, a versatile columnist and feature writer for The Evening Sun and The Sun whose newspaper career spanned more than 30 years, died of a heart attack Sunday at her Ruxton home. She was 83.

Mrs. Hawks was a genial and well-liked newsroom figure whose voice - despite living in Baltimore for six decades - never lost its gentle Mississippi lilt. And while she bore more than a passing resemblance to actress Judi Dench, she lived her life after the fashion of Auntie Mame.

Born and raised Ellen McCracken in Sardis, Miss., she was the grandniece of Liza Jane Poitevent, founder of The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans. In her childhood, she became acquainted with her father's friend and drinking companion, author William Faulkner, who lived nearby.

In her youth, she was a high-spirited tomboy, animal lover and accomplished equestrian.

"She was always a dynamo. After her father's death, her mother couldn't handle her and she was sent away to All Saints Episcopal College, a private girls school in Vicksburg," said her son Marshall Wiley Hawks of Ruxton.

She attended Mississippi State College for Women and during World War II worked as a nurse in a prisoner-of-war camp in her hometown. While working at the camp, she met Marshall Hawks, an Army officer from Ruxton, and they were married in 1943.

The couple lived for more than 50 years on LaBelle Avenue in Ruxton, where Mrs. Hawks cared for a menagerie of animals while trying to find them good homes. Her husband, a Baltimore advertising executive, died in 1974.

A lunch at Marconi's in the 1940s with H.L. Mencken, who was a close friend of her in-laws, became the source of a story that she enjoyed recounting throughout her life:

"Mencken asked me, `Miss Hawks, what do you want to do when you grow up?' I said, `Mr. Mencken, what do you want to do when you grow up?' He answered, `Be stuffed and placed in the Smithsonian next to a bust of Eleanor Roosevelt.'"

After raising her three children, Mrs. Hawks took a secretarial job until being hired in the late 1960s by Thomas J. White, editor of The News American, to work on the newspaper's "Mainline for Action." The consumer feature helped readers navigate government bureaucracy.

In 1970, Mrs. Hawks joined The Evening Sun as an editorial assistant and was promoted to reporter three years later. She initially worked for several years on "Direct Line," The Evening Sun's version of "Mainline for Action."

She later gained widespread readership with her columns "Pausing With Pets," "Volunteers/Where good neighbors get together," "Best Bets," and in recent years - until her retirement last year - "The Recipe Finder."

"She was a one-woman band over the years, and the thread through all of her work was reader-oriented services which helped people day-to-day. The volunteer column, for instance, featured stories on volunteers, as well as a rotating list of groups where people could volunteer," said Ernest F. Imhoff, a retired Sun reporter who was The Evening Sun's last managing editor.

Mrs. Hawks regularly spent a week in New York covering the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden, and she could find the most arcane information to include in her pet columns.

In a 1976 column on fleas, she wrote, "A flea hops with an acceleration 140 times the force of gravity at 14 times the acceleration which would cause a man to black out. It can leap at least 8 inches up and 13 inches across. Size for size, an equal leap for man would be 275 feet up and 450 feet across."

Another focused on a young couple who were thrilled at the boa constrictor they received as a wedding present and named Stanley.

She was a champion of animal rights and admonished parents for giving children pets they would later lose interest in. "Consequently, the animal will suffer, and when its charm has worn thin and the children ignore it another stray will likely hit the streets," she wrote.

Her feature stories reflected a wide range of interests and a love of the quirky, such as when she covered the International Bicentennial Pet Rock Show.

"Ellen really had an amazing rapport with children and animals and was quite intuitive and never pretentious. She was a very energetic person who enjoyed life," said Lucy Acton, a former Evening Sun colleague.

Of a 13-year-old child prodigy who began playing piano at the age of 4, she wrote: "His repertoire runs from `Johnny B. Good' to `Roll Over Beethoven' - he prefers rhythm and blues - and he mastered the `Polonaise' in two hours last year prior to playing for the Polish Festival."

While lamenting the fact that children were becoming increasing hooked on computer games, she reported that children were still jumping rope as in ages past.

"There is something in the world that hasn't changed. It's the game of jumping rope, where Double Dutch doesn't mean a sundae and `Butterfly, Butterfly' needs no net," she wrote.

Her uttered benediction at the end of her work day never changed: "Ah, now it's time for a little bourbon renewal." She then would head out to meet a gang of close friends at the old Pellington's Iron Horse Restaurant, and in recent years the Peppermill Restaurant in Lutherville.

With characteristic self-effacing humor last year, she told newsroom colleagues that she was finally retiring because she was "tired of being the Sunpapers' token geriatric."

Plans for a memorial service were incomplete yesterday.

Also surviving are another son, John Wells Hawks of Monkton; a daughter, Anne Poitevent Hawks Austin of Martha's Vineyard, Mass.; six grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; and her longtime friend, Bill Eliot of Westminster.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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