Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Remembering my friend and sportswriting pioneer, Jean Giambrone

                Jean Giambrone was many things to many people. She was a sportswriting pioneer who blazed a trail for female reporters, athletes, coaches and administrators. She was a humanitarian, who raised money and awareness for many worthy causes in the Rochester area. She was a doting wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother. And she was a mentor and a friend to scores of people, including yours truly.
                Jean passed away yesterday at age 91. Her death saddens me, and I will miss her greatly because she was there for me in good times and in bad. But her legacy will live on in all of us whose lives she touched. She was a remarkable lady. It was a privilege to be able to call her my friend. The following is a column I wrote in 2008 for the Democrat and Chronicle and the Sportswomen of the Year Luncheon program. Jean founded the banquet to celebrate local female athletes, coaches and administrators. I hope it gives you a feel for her extraordinary life.


                When she boarded the bus that wintry evening nearly seven decades ago, Jean Giambrone had no intention of blazing a trail. No intention of becoming a sportswriting pioneer.
                She was an angry reader heading to the Democrat and Chronicle offices to voice a complaint. It was as simple as that.
                “To this day, I can’t believe I did what I did,’’ said the founder of the WHAM Sportswomen of the Year Luncheon. “It was done strictly on impulse. I was fed up because the papers seemed to write stories only about male athletes. There were a lot of women doing good things in sports, especially locally, and I thought it was high time the papers started telling their stories, too.”
                Giambrone argued her case with former D&C sports editor Elliot Cushing, then with former managing editor Joe Adams. Adams agreed with her, and asked the University of Rochester sophomore to submit a column about local women’s sports. She did, the paper ran it, and Giambrone eventually became what she never intended becoming: a pioneering sportswriter.
                “I never considered myself a women’s libber or anything like that,’’ Giambrone said. “I am happy, though, to see women and girls receive coverage and sports opportunities they never had before. I think that’s great.”
                Although this modest 87-year-young great grandmother downplays her role in this evolution, there’s no question Giambrone is a major reason many doors once closed to local female athletes are now open. Her coverage of women’s and men’s sports over four decades undoubtedly inspired young girls to pursue their sporting dreams.
                Giambrone also inspired by example; by going where women had not gone before. She was the first female sportswriter to be issued full press credentials to cover The Masters. She also was the first golf writer to recognize Lee Trevino’s greatness. So respected is Giambrone in the golf community that luminaries such as Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer call her by her first name whenever they run into her during their Rochester visits.
                It’s no longer unusual to see female reporters covering major golf tournaments. But it was unheard of until Giambrone headed for Augusta in 1967. Before Giambrone blazed the trail, women reporters weren’t even allowed in the press room. They had to conduct their interviews outside.
                It all changed 41 years ago when Giambrone, with a huge assist from veteran Associated Press sports columnist Will Grimsley, was given typewriter space alongside her male counterparts.
                “I’ll always be indebted for the way Will and some others intervened,’’ she says. “They told the tournament officials that wasn’t acceptable; they got their ear. I was fearful for awhile that I was going to have to type my stories in my car in the parking lot and sneak some money to a Western Union guy to send my copy back to Rochester for me.”
                Giambrone also credits the athletes she dealt with. She didn’t experience the threatening behavior by male athletes that current sportswriters Lisa Olsen and Christine Brennan endured.
                “The fellows were very good to me,’’ she said. “I don’t know if I could have succeeded without their cooperation. There were numerous times when players such as Palmer and Nicklaus and Ken Venturi knew I couldn’t go into the locker room, so they would wait outside so I could interview them. There were a few difficult athletes, but they didn’t discriminate. They were difficult to all reporters, regardless of gender.”
                Giambrone’s journalistic journeys often took her to assignments beyond sports. One of her favorite interviews was an exclusive she conducted with a young, bobby-socks crooner by the name of Frank Sinatra in the 1940s. A storm had forced Sinatra’s plane to land in Rochester and Giambrone and a photographer were dispatched to the airport to track down the Chairman of the Board. They eventually found a limousine parked outside the terminal and Giambrone went up to a burly body guard and began pleading her case.
                “I told him, ‘You’ve got to let me interview Frank. If I don’t go back to the office with a story, I’ll be out of a job,’ ‘’ she recalled. “The guy couldn’t care less. He said Frank wasn’t doing any interviews. I’m thinking my career is over, and then all of a sudden, the window is rolled down, and there’s Sinatra motioning for me to come into the car. I got my story.”
                Thanks to Giambrone’s persistence, Rochester readers were treated to a compelling piece about America’s most popular singer.
                “No matter what she was covering, Jean always came back with a great story,’’ said retired Times-Union editor Frank Cardon, Giambrone’s former boss. “She always managed to give her readers something they didn’t know or hadn’t heard. To me, that’s what set her apart from many of her peers. Jean had a fascination for information, and a wonderful way of putting it into words.”
                Giambrone’s involvement in her community has gone well beyond her work as a newspaper chronicler. Following the lead of her late husband, Charlie, Giambrone has been active in numerous charitable and community causes. In 1978, she conceived the idea for a golf tournament to raise money for the Mary Cariola Children’s Center. That first tournament raised nearly $3,000. In recent years, that annual total has ballooned to $40,000.
                “She is passionate about everything she does, and that includes her work as a fund-raiser and volunteer,’’ said Elisa Root, a former community liason coordinator for Mary Cariola. “She cares so much for the kids here, and it shows in her work.”
                That passion also has been evident in her work with the WHAM Sportswomen’s luncheon, which she helped found 30 years ago in an effort to honor local female athletes, coaches and administrators. Guest speakers such as Bonnie Blair, Robin Roberts, Wilma Rudolph and Pat Summitt have called the banquet the finest of its kind.
                No story about Giambrone would be complete without mention of her family. Her husband Charlie, who died 13 years ago, often talked about how fortunate he was to have such a devoted wife. Her children and grandchildren express similar thoughts.
                “I’ve been blessed because I was able to do a job I loved and not have it interfere with my family,’’ she said. “My bosses were understanding and generous. They realized that my top priority was my family. They structured the job so I could be there with them whenever I needed to be.”
                In a way, she was ahead of her time in that respect, too.
                “She was able to juggle her family obligations and her career, and each aspect of her life flourished,’’ said Root. “She was a college graduate. She had a career. And she was devoted to her family. She really was what we would call a woman of the ‘90s back in the ‘40s.”

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