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Columnist Mary McGrory, Having Her Final Say

Family and Famous Attend Well-Crafted Service

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2004; Page C01

It was her final composition, as carefully crafted as all the rest. Mary McGrory put together her own funeral with the same painstaking attention to detail she gave to her 19-inch columns.

She wrote down the instructions by hand. She picked the pallbearers and the eulogists. She detailed the songs, the scriptural readings, and figured out where her old Washington Star colleagues would sit (reserved rows up front). Her choice of the hymn "I'll Meet You in the Morning" was appropriate for a newspaper columnist (and never mind that for many years she wrote for an afternoon paper).

Pallbearers including William Raspberry and Mark Shields, front, carry Mary McGrory's coffin from church. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

She told her friend Mark Gearan that, as at the parties at her Macomb Street NW home, he would be on keyboards. She was not the kind of person to whom one could say no.

"We just had to do what we were told -- which I've been doing for 20 years," said a smiling Gearan as he made his way out of the church yesterday.

There had always been a legion of men known as McGrory's Bearers, but this time they did not have to lug her suitcase or ferry her to a political rally or escort her to the best seat in a Capitol Hill hearing room. They simply had to say goodbye, a tougher burden.

McGrory, the longtime columnist for The Washington Post who died last week, never married in her 85 years, but the size of her extended family yesterday strained the limits of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, near Chevy Chase Circle. Everyone squeezed in tight: senators, congressmen, publishers, pundits, parishioners, the sisters from St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home, former Bearers and the widows of Bearers.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and his wife, Vicki, came to pay respects to the woman who better than anyone captured the heart-stopping tragedy of two assassinations in the nation's leading political family. It was McGrory who turned to Daniel Patrick Moynihan after President Kennedy was slain and said she felt like we'd never laugh again (to which Moynihan replied, we'll laugh again, it's just that we'll never be young again).

Into the church came Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Al Hunt, James J. Kilpatrick, pallbearer Mark Shields, and Russell Baker, who said later, "Mary did something remarkable: She went to work. Once I got a column I took it as a license to never go back to the Hill again."

Some of the famous were once obscure Bearers. George Stephanopoulos, who as a young Hill rat had wound up working in McGrory's garden, managed to find an extra chair in a back corner of the church. "I helped plant a little Christmas tree in her back yard," he said. "Well, that and a lot of weeding. But the tree is what I'm most proud of."

The funeral McGrory engineered had a distinct masculine bias. As always there were men surrounding her, including all three eulogists. A couple of her Star colleagues struck up a conversation after the funeral about why McGrory declined to include female colleagues in her coterie of bag-schleppers. The theory from Allan Dodds Frank, now with Bloomberg: "She wanted women to be independent and didn't want them to do anything subservient. She wanted them to be like her."

This was precisely the kind of event that McGrory would have loved to cover: one that had a powerful sense of place, of moment, combining lofty sentiment with earthly reality, a situation that begged for the special observational powers of a woman with a sharp eye and great capacity for empathy. Here was a great deal of human texture: important people, famous people, but also many people unlikely ever to see their names in boldface.

"She'd be here early and stay late and talk to everyone who attended," NBC's Tim Russert said as he walked into the church.

Surely she would have zoomed in on the telling detail -- perhaps the rain. It was announced by a breeze that inspired tree branches to wave just outside the open windows, as if seeking attention from the crowd within. When the rain began to fall it was not angry or stormy, but lightly percussive, gentle, nourishing, making a sound you could sell at Sharper Image as a tranquilizer.

"The sky is crying and watering all her flowers," whispered Melody Miller, senior aide to Sen. Kennedy.

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