As the backbone of the Newspaper Guild in Baltimore for more than three decades, Connie Knox often found herself in front of convention halls packed with union members. Shy by nature, Knox found the courage to speak her mind. But she had trouble sleeping the night before, especially if a contract was up for a vote.
“Even when she knew she was right, she worried,” said her daughter Felicity. “But it was work she was called to.”
In her job editing stories on The Baltimore Sun copy desk, Knox was characteristically quiet yet, according to those who watched her work up close, both “demanding and nurturing.”
Connie’s dedication to these two goals — making Maryland’s largest daily paper a good product and making sure it was produced by well compensated employees – was the subject of lengthy discussion at two events this year so close together they seemed to occur back-to-back.
She retired from the newspaper on April 29, 2011 after 33 years on Calvert Street and died – most likely from a stroke suffered while she slept at home in Sparks – not three months later. She was 68.
But simultaneously protecting a living wage and the English language were just the most obvious parts of who Connie Knox was.
“People didn’t realize the full picture of my Mom,” said Felicity, a Towson State University archivist who lost her father before grade school and spent much of her childhood with Connie in The Sun newsroom.
“She had her conscripted relationships – union leader, copy editor, mother and stepmother. But I saw her doing it all at the same time … I was her listening post”.
A liberal in heart and intellect, Knox was one of those rare people who become more progressive as they age. Yet in the kitchen – she once wrote about dousing a burning steak in the broiler with baking soda – Connie was to the right of pot roast.
One culinary subject in particular was paramount, beyond even the sanctity of split-shift differential pay – a mid-western ambrosia of mushy maize known as twice-cooked corn.
“Not many people know what it is,” said Felicity, 39. “It’s a winter dish she made on holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.” It was a tradition Connie brought with her from Akron, where she was born in 1943 and graduated high school. (Her degree in journalism was awarded in 1965 from Ohio University, in the Buckeye town of Athens.)
Felicity had that dish on her mind after her mother’s death, proving that the soul of tradition is not obsession with ritual but love for the people with whom we share them. Still mourning, she found a 2007 e-mail from her Mom heralding the coming holidays.
“Wherever we are for Thanksgiving, we’ll have the corn,” wrote Connie, who’d gotten to the roadside farm stand early enough for a fresh shipment of Silver Queen from the Eastern Shore. “I have [the kernels from] 30 ears in the oven. Now I just have to stir every couple of hours through the night, which is the unpleasant part. Phew – sticky corn kernels!”
Felicity, walked down the aisle by her mother when she married Jesse Lee Ruckus, will pass on the tradition to Eve, their six-year-old daughter. She has the process committed to memory.
“Mom would get as many ears of corn as she could find, shuck it, boil it and cut off the kernels before drying them overnight in the oven,” said Felicity. “Then she’d freeze them until the cold weather came. When it was time to make it, she’d cover the kernels with water and let it boil all day until soft.
“Then you add butter and cream at the end and it becomes a dark [mass] …” Voila!
“My mother couldn’t cook at all,” laughed Felicity over a dinner of lemon soup and stuffed squash at Ikaros in Greektown where the things Connie despised – garlic, olives, and seafood – are in abundance.
Like most folks, Connie Knox was a combination of predilections and contradictions.
She liked vacationing at the seashore, but didn’t get in the water. [“I never saw her in a bathing suit,” said Felicity.] A glass of wine was a good way to unwind after a long day in the newsroom, but she hated beer, no matter how close she worked with the rank-and-file.
Connie loved reading crime fiction and closely followed the adventures of Tess Monaghan in the mystery novels of former Sun reporter Laura Lippman.
“Connie was intently attentive to details, she caught everything in a novel,” said Lippman. “And yet she was very forgiving of the little errors and plot holes she found.”
So gracious was Knox, remembered Lippman, that when the always-on-duty copy editor “found something that appeared to be an error, she … sought an explanation under the sincere belief that something had gone over her head.
“But nothing went over Connie’s head …”
Into Connie’s head went an eclectic range of jazz from WWOZ-FM in New Orleans, which she listened through headphones via the Internet while editing. She shared her favorite movies with her daughter (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s and “Five Easy Pieces”) and took the 12-year-old Felicity to her first concert – Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders.
Felicity’s name is a jumble of the letters of her parents’ first names, Floyd and Connie, and her birth made good on a promise Floyd made before Connie before she agreed to marry him.
When they met in the newsroom of the old Republican-American in Waterbury, Conn. in the late 1960s, Floyd E. Knox was a divorced city editor with five children and Connie Mugrage a never-married young reporter.
When Floyd proposed, Connie accepted conditionally. If she was going to inherit five step-children, she wanted one of her own. Floyd agreed, they were married in 1970 and Felicity arrived two years later.
Floyd landed on the old Sunday Sun copy desk in 1973 and Connie got a job near York, Pa. teaching journalism. In the Spring of 1977, Floyd died.
“Three packs of Camels a day – lung cancer,” said Felicity. About a year later, the paper hired Connie to fill Floyd’s position.
“My mother loved him with a strange, obsessive sort of love,” said Felicity. “I don’t recall her as especially lonely, but she barely dated after he died and he’s been dead for 30 years.”
Thus, Connie’s world was made up of her daughter, the newspaper and the union. Like many a newspaper kid, Felicity spent a lot of time hanging around the newsroom waiting for Mom to finish up so they could grab a late dinner.
[It was the era of a fully-staffed newsroom, when The Sun was a bulwark to be reckoned. At the time, Connie was one of more than 60 copy editors editing stories in every section of the paper. Today, it has a total of two copy editors – TWO – to read every word en route to print.]
“I’d make bracelets out of paperclips and play with the loose change in her desk,” said Felicity. “Then I’d go from desk to desk talking to people saying whatever I wanted to say to anybody who’d listen.”
Felicity was back in the newsroom on the day her mother retired, an important moment marked not just by a supermarket sheet cake but a proper meal. Then mother and daughter went up the street to the Midtown Yacht Club for a glass of wine. Connie’s career in journalism was over and she looked forward to campaigning for President Obama in 2012.
But Felicity, who over her mother’s long career had spent many hundreds of hours in The Sun newsroom – most of them on the fifth floor before the news operation moved to the second deck – noticed that things had changed.
Not just because her Mom suddenly no longer worked there. It seemed like hardly anyone worked there anymore.
“It didn’t smell the same, it didn’t sound the same,” she said. “It wasn’t the same.”