- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2009

Mary Lou Forbes was a traditional Virginia gentlewoman. Her hint of a Southern accent and her friendly, hospitable and gracious manner were suggestive of the Northern Virginia in which she was born and came of age. That was a smaller, less bustling, but more neighborly place than the sprawling suburbia of today.

The old Northern Virginia was a place lacking cloverleafs and huge multilane commuter bridges, where most of Fairfax County was involved in dairy farming, Tysons Corner was a rural crossroads, and Loudoun had few towns of note other than Leesburg.

Mrs. Forbes was a lifelong resident of Alexandria and graduated from the public schools there before attending the University of Maryland. She died Saturday at age 83 in Inova Alexandria Hospital, which stands on the grounds of the old hospital where she was born June 21, 1926.

In the old days, urban Virginians were very “town and country.” They liked to get out into the countryside to buy their genuine Virginia smoked hams and their mountain-grown Christmas trees. These were traditions that Mary Lou Forbes and her late husband, James Forbes, followed through their marriage. Every year they would send off for a Virginia smoked country ham from Smithfield and would journey out to farms in the western reaches of their state or the West Virginia Panhandle to handpick their large fresh-cut Christmas tree, which would adorn the spiraling stairwell of their lovely home, which Mr. Forbes had designed after a home that had charmed Mary Lou on a visit to North Carolina.

But Mrs. Forbes was a woman of the world who had traveled to Rome and to East Asia and around the United States, and there was nothing provincial about her. As Commentary and then Opinion editor for The Washington Times since 1984, she read voluminous correspondence from all over.

At the end of a busy day of setting the “lineup” of articles and picking art to accompany them, she would often go home to walk her dog, change clothes and then return to the city and attend a reception at the Washington Hilton or a newsmaker event at the National Press Club.

She greeted and dealt with each person she met on his or her merits, while retaining always her own unique, openhanded manner. And she dealt with people from all walks of life, from those who dominate the halls of power to those who scrub those halls of power and everyone in between. She treated them all with great friendliness and respect as simply other persons whom she knew and liked.

Still, she treasured especially the large network of neighbors, friends, relatives, co-workers and professional contacts she had developed through the years and assiduously maintained contact with them all. She also especially reveled in the delights of her own backyard. She loved her work at The Washington Times but would often reminisce over her early experiences and close bonds formed while working at the old Washington Star — bonds that spanned nearly a lifetime.

One might find her absorbed in a controversy about a Supreme Court nominee one minute, or the latest international crisis, only to segue into a delightful narrative about an encounter with a deer, a lovely fox or a raccoon or other species of wildlife on the grounds of her large and handsome home across the street from Alexandria Hospital.

She was an ebullient personality. She could not be defeated by disappointment or embittered by reversal. She was capable of anger only fleetingly and of resentment almost not at all. Even if wronged, her typical response was more of sorrow than of anger.

But like any true lady, she could get her dander up, and when she did, she was plainspoken and direct. But by the next day, if not earlier, all was forgiven and forgotten.

She encouraged the enterprise of others and often held back her own opinions. “I’m not the expert,” she would often say. “I create the forum where the experts can come and hold their debate.” Still, she was a woman of decidedly traditional values, a lifelong devout Roman Catholic tightly connected to her beloved parish of St. Mary’s Church in Alexandria, and a woman who deeply believed in the American values of openness, honesty, hard work, love of country, family and clean fun.

The joy of her younger years was life on the water, boating and fishing with her husband and their son, James Jr. Photographs in their Ocean City condominium show the three Forbeses proudly displaying their catch of the day while squinting joyfully in the sunlight of those years gone by.

She was a woman for all seasons. Her sense of humor never betrayed her; nor she it. She found amusement in the small and surprising things in life and never a malicious delight in the misfortunes or downfall of others.

She made her mark as a reporter for the Star covering the school-desegregation controversy in Virginia. It was a controversy that drew her in deeply as an observer who won the confidence of the newsmakers in Richmond and as a reporter of integrity who covered the issue honestly and completely. But she never lost her aplomb or her equipoise.

That era of massive resistance to desegregation puzzled her personally. For as a women who, to paraphrase Will Rogers, never met a person she didn’t like, she couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about anyway. She knew from her own childhood that children of different races and backgrounds get along just fine and grow up peacefully together as friends if they are just allowed to do so.

She won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on Virginia desegregation. It was an honor and distinction never more deservedly given.

Benjamin P. Tyree is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times.

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