A Devoted Family Man And Journalist, John McNamara’s Legacy Lives On

In sports writer John McNamara, former Maryland head basketball coach Gary Williams saw the journalism equivalent of “a player.”

“There are lots of good basketball players,” Williams said recently. “But a player is the guy who shows up every day at practice and works hard to make himself better every time he steps on the court. He gives it everything he has.”

Basketball people know a player when they see one and the coach said he saw that in McNamara as a sports journalist.

“John studied the game. He talked about the game. He even played the game,” Williams said.

McNamara, 56, was one of five people killed when a gunman opened fire in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette newspapers in Annapolis, Md., June 28.

Along with McNamara, others killed were fellow journalists Rob Hiaasen, 59, Gerald Fischman, 61, and Wendi Williams, 65, and sales assistant Rebecca Smith, 34. Charged with first-degree murder is Jarrod Ramos, 38, who had a long-running feud with the newspaper company.

“John had a love and a passion for basketball and although our association was coach and reporter, we shared that respect for the game,” Williams said of the reporter who covered Terps sports teams for years, including the Maryland basketball team’s run to the NCAA national championship in 2002.

As Williams noted, McNamara was a student of basketball who played recreationally into his middle years with a trademark left-handed style.

“He had a good left-hand drive,” said Baltimore Sun copy editor Gerry Jackson, who worked with McNamara for about a quarter-century in Annapolis. “And he had a great left-handed jumper that if you didn’t get out there after him, he’d torch you.”

While McNamara — known as Johnny Mac or simply Mac to friends and colleagues — may have been best known for his encyclopedic knowledge and enduring love of basketball, he was an old-school journalist from an earlier era, well-versed in a number of subjects and more than capable of tackling any assignment, whether sports or news.

“Before there was Google, there was Johnny Mac,” Jackson said. “Whether it was grammar or baseball history, if you didn’t want to look it up, you asked John. … He was very well read. He knew literature and music and movies.”

Jackson said McNamara was devoted to his wife of 33 years, Andrea Chamblee. She wrote a poignant essay for The Washington Post recounting the agonizing minutes and hours just after the newsroom attack as she tried to learn her husband’s fate, and then how she tried to cope in the following days.

McNamara hailed from a large Catholic family, one of seven siblings.

“When you sit next to someone for all those years, you get to know them pretty intimately, whether you want to or not,” said Jackson, also Catholic and also from a big family. “What I learned of John was that he was a rock for his family. He was absolutely devoted. If there was a crisis or something going on, he was the go-to guy.”

McNamara’s wife described her husband’s commitment to family in recounting how McNamara’s younger sister, Peggy, was hurt badly in a vehicular accident while doing humanitarian work in Papua New Guinea in 2001. Then in her early 20s, Peggy suffered brain trauma that resulted in long hospital stays in Australia and the United States.

When she was well enough, Peggy lived with McNamara and Chamblee.

“John made sure she got to her recovery exercises and her rehabilitation and physical therapy,” Chamblee said. “And he would sit on the sofa with her and help her do her homework and encouraged her when she got down in the dumps because she felt she wasn’t making enough progress.”

In time, Peggy recovered. She works now, is married and has a 3-year-old son.

“John was looking forward to helping Peggy’s son learn to throw a baseball,” Chamblee said. “The father is an artist and not much of a sports fan.”

This was simply what McNamara did, his wife explained.

“That was the kind of guy he was,” she said. “He showed up when you needed him.”

McNamara’s sense of dedication extended to his newspaper family, as well.

“Before he left the office, if you were still working, he’d always ask if there was something he could do for you. Was there something extra he could help with,” Jackson said.

McNamara graduated from St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., and the University of Maryland, and he began his journalism career at The Herald-Mail in Hagerstown, Md. He joined The Capital as a copy editor and moved to the Prince George’s Journal so he could pursue sports journalism. Then, he moved back to The Capital as a sports editor and writer.

Like many in the newspaper business, McNamara felt the effects of a contracting industry. Several years ago, he was moved from sports to news editing and reporting for two sister newspapers in the Capital Gazette Communications group, the Bowie Blade-News and the Crofton-West County Gazette. The Maryland Gazette is also among the four local papers that form a subsidiary of the Baltimore Sun Media Group.

“He was the consummate professional,” Capital Gazette Communications editor Rick Hutzell said of McNamara. “Clearly, John would have preferred to remain as a sports writer, but … we needed him in news.”

“He may have grumbled about having to do some of the stories that he had to do, but after grumbling about it, he’d turn around and do the perfect story,” Hutzell said. “Whether it was a basketball game or the Bowie town council, it was going to be the best article that John could do.”

Along with his newspaper work, McNamara also authored two books, one of which was a look back at Maryland basketball and was written with former Washington Times sports writer David Elfin. The other was about the history of Terrapin football. He was reportedly working on another book about Washington-area basketball greats.

Being able to cover Terrapin sports was a dream come true for McNamara, who wrote for the school’s respected newspaper, The Diamondback, when he was an undergraduate.

Now, the university plans on recognizing McNamara’s life and legacy as a sports journalist in a lasting way to commemorate his contributions to inform and enrich Maryland followers.

Former Maryland associate athletic director for media relations Doug Dull, now at American University, was a roommate with McNamara when the two worked at the Hagerstown newspaper.

“John was absolutely thorough. His attitude was always: do your homework. Research the coach, the athletes, the game you’re going to cover. That’s how John did it,” Dull said. “And he’d always ask the right question at the right time.”

Elfin, who co-authored the book about Maryland basketball, said while McNamara’s love for Maryland sports was deep, his reporting reflected a critical eye and coaches could never be too comfortable with McNamara on the beat.

Williams, the former Terps basketball coach, respected how McNamara handled the responsibility of a beat writer.

“John’s sense of basketball was rooted in the team concept and that’s how I see it as well,” Williams said. “He wasn’t afraid to be critical when he thought it was appropriate, but when he was, it was, ‘The team didn’t rebound well,’ or ‘The team failed to shoot well.’ He didn’t criticize individual players. You never know what a kid is going through — maybe he has a bad ankle and he’s playing as hard as he can but he just isn’t moving as good. John understood those factors.”

While McNamara’s writing reflected an unwavering professionalism, he exhibited a sophisticated wit in private. Fellow sports reporter Jeff Barker, of The Baltimore Sun, related in a eulogy how McNamara could parody the coaching jargon sports writers often have to translate for readers.

“You know, Jeff, it’s not enough to be physically prepared for today’s feature story,” Barker recollected McNamara saying wryly. “I need to be mentally prepared so I can properly execute my fundamentals, the better to achieve ultimate multiplicity on both sides of the ball.”

While basketball was McNamara’s first journalistic love, baseball was close behind. He relished covering the Bowie Baysox, the Baltimore Orioles’ Double-A affiliate in the Eastern League.

Adam Pohl, director of broadcasting for the Baysox who does play-by-play, said McNamara had covered the team from its inception in 1993.

Lately, newsroom duties had pulled McNamara from the Prince George’s Stadium press box to Bowie town government meetings. The veteran writer’s visits to the Baysox were less frequent but always welcomed.

“John had this way about him that put people at ease,” Pohl said. “When he sat with our manager, Gary Kendall, the first part of the conversation always was John asking Gary about Gary, how things were going for him before the conversation turned to the subject at hand. … It was clear to me that John saw the coaches and players as people, not merely as a means to an end in writing a newspaper article.”

Jackson, the Baltimore Sun copy editor and McNamara’s longtime colleague, noted that for McNamara, the business of journalism wasn’t just a job, it was a calling — especially covering Maryland sports.

“There were times when we were planning to use a wire service article about a Maryland football game and Johnny Mac had an editor’s shift that would start late on a Saturday,” Jackson said. “He’d go to the football game on his own time, cover it, get to the office, write it and then do his full editor’s shift. And he’d do that with Maryland basketball games on his nights off.

“All because he loved it.”

July 30 would have been McNamara’s birthday. Instead of celebrating it with her husband, Chamblee reflected on her life with him.

“About six months ago, I was searching for a word — a word that meant loyalty but wasn’t actually loyalty, so I did the obvious thing, I asked John for help,” she said. “After a while, he said ‘devoted’ and I said that’s the exact word. And he wanted to know what I was trying to describe and I told him that it was him. Because he was so devoted to his family and so devoted to my family and so devoted to writing good stories. And for some crazy reason, so devoted to me.”

This was updated to specify that McNamara’s sister was in Papua New Guinea at the time of her injury.

Photo Credit: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post

Issue 246: August 2018