Sylvia Rector, 'tough editor' in Twin Cities who became beloved food critic in Detroit

Joe Kimball remembers it as a tense period in his career at the Star Tribune: The time when his paper squared off against the rival Pioneer Press with an aggression it had never shown before. Suddenly it wasn’t just the Minneapolis paper; it aspired to embrace the entire metro area.

A Star Tribune news bureau materialized in St. Paul, amply staffed and led by Sylvia Rector, a journalist who had been battle-tested in cities such as Dallas and Washington, where newspaper wars were the norm.

“We felt like troops landing on the beach,” said Kimball, now retired. “It was a landmark moment for the paper, and Sylvia was our field general.”

Rector, who joined the Detroit Free Press in 1992 and became well-known there as the newspaper’s food critic for 17 years, died of colon cancer on Dec. 20 at the age of 66.

Her husband, Charles Hill, a retired Associated Press bureau chief, described her as a “force of nature” as a journalist but also “a very sweet and kind person,” whose passing drew a torrent of appreciative memories from a culinary community that cherished her constructive approach in what can be a cutting line of work.

Rector grew up on a farm in Fancy Gap, Va., and attended a one-room schoolhouse. Scholarships paved her way to college.

She landed first at the Associated Press, then made a number of stops at different newspapers, including the Washington Star. She was state editor at the Dallas Times Herald, supervising reporters at the State Capitol, Austin and other big cities.

She arrived at the Star Tribune in 1984 as an assistant city editor. The move to St. Paul two years later to lead the newspaper’s new bureau there was a dramatic moment in the life of the family, Hill said. A top editor stopped by the house during her maternity leave to ask Rector to take it on, and “she came back early from that leave to do that job.” Editors asked the family to move to the east metro, he said, and they did.

She both applied pressure and felt it, Kimball said. Reporters dreaded the vision of a Pioneer Press laid out across Rector’s desk with “stories we missed, circled in bright orange. She was tough.” But he also remembered her occasionally retreating into her tiny office and shutting off the lights to gather herself.

“We later figured out she protected us [from impatient home-office criticism] more than we knew,” Kimball said.

Journalists who recalled Rector as a driven hard-news leader, demanding of herself and others, may have found it puzzling to see her fetch up as a food writer in Detroit. There was an explanation, her husband said: She was a mother seeking more family time. But she worked hard there and was a formidable presence in the field, said Brenna Houck, of the website Eater Detroit.

“She was definitely the scoop-maker most of the time, especially with big stories. She had made dining into her own space,” Houck said. “If I could ever beat out the Free Press, that was a fun day for me.”

Star Tribune Taste section editor Lee Dean said of Rector: “Food is a wonderful medium for storytelling, and Sylvia embraced it wholeheartedly, weaving tales of her childhood and more into reviews and reports from the kitchen, hers and others. ... Detroit readers were better fed because of her work.”

After Rector died, Houck described her online as “beloved.” In an interview, she said that Rector was never snarky or destructive, and plainly cared about leading readers to great food and bringing out the inner lives of the chefs who cooked it.

Attribution: David Peterson Star Tribune

John Sherwood, Columnist and Features Writer in Baltimore, Washington and Annapolis - December 7, 2016

John Sherwood, who for more than 50 years crafted profiles on an array of working-class characters and fringy eccentrics as a columnist and features writer in Baltimore, Washington and Annapolis, died Dec. 7. He was 84.

Sherwood spent almost 20 years at the former Washington Star newspaper capturing the lives and personalities of ordinary, captivating people in print — most of whom had no idea that they were anything but ordinary. With a Runyonesque flair he brought alive the likes of ferry-boat operators, tea room waitresses, pigeon racers, Linotype workers, tool-booth trolls, tug boat drivers, and hundreds more such ilk who likely never dreamed they were important enough to decorate the pages of a big city newspaper or a magazine — as well as individuals with delusions of grandeur. Better yet, he made the reader understand their importance, too.

Consider Vera — "who won't discuss her age," — the late owner of a Polynesian-style Tiki bar and restaurant on the Patuxent River in a Sherwood piece entitled "Empress of the White Sands."

"Vera upstages everything when she materializes nightly, as if in a vision…She has a vast wardrobe that changes with her moods… Sometimes a huge brass gong is sounded upon her arrival. One of the bartenders immediately pours a shallow glass of champagne as Vera glides inside and settles down on a vinyl, leopard skin bar stool across from a grand piano. When the piano player strikes up a Vera favorite, the outdated 'Sheik of Araby,' it's as though someone has waved a wand and commanded the evening to begin."

Sherwood's great gift was the ability to discern hidden, intriguing facets from the hoity-toity to the hoi-polloi. He could make them talk about themselves, often by asking innocently outrageous questions. Take Tony, an 81-year-old Italian bread baker in Baltimore's Little Italy, who spurned retail customers wanting to buy a loaf from the bake shop below his dingy row house apartment, which his father, "Poppy-pop," had started in 1914. Sherwood asked him about retirement.

"We sell 1,000 loaves a day, that's enough," Tony replied furiously. "We could bake and sell 5,000 loaves a day if I expanded, but what for? I don't wanna be a millionaire. I ain't married. I ain't got children. I want to stay here until I die. Poppy-pop liked it here. I like it here."

John Sherwood was born in Baltimore on Nov. 9, 1932, the son of a physician, and graduated in 1951 from Calvert Hall, a private Catholic prep school. He attended "numerous colleges," including the University of Maryland, before enlisting in the Army and serving a tour in Korea after the war had ended. In 1956 he married Elizabeth "Betty" Cronin, who died in 2000.

He began his writing career with The Baltimore Sun newspapers in 1960, then joined the Washington Evening Star in 1962 as a features reporter. Soon he was one of the writers of The Rambler, a popular daily column dedicated to profiling regional people and places. During his days at the Star he'd become a passionate sailor. When the Star folded in 1981, Sherwood migrated to work at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, then moved on to the Miami Herald, but he deeply missed the Chesapeake Bay and the Annapolis area, where he had a home in Severna Park.

He returned to the region in the late 1980s, writing for a variety of sailing and boating magazines. Single-handing his sleek, classic Sparkman & Stevens-designed 22-foot Sailmaster sloop called Erewhon, he became as familiar a feature to people around Annapolis and the Eastern Shore as the great Bay Bridge itself. Up and down the bay and its many tributaries, people knew and always waved when silver-haired "Capt'n Jack" came gliding by with tiller in hand.

In the 1990s Sherwood began writing a regular monthly column, Bay Tripper for the boating magazine Soundings, which featured the wide variety of people who derived their living, sport and pleasure, from the Chesapeake and its environs, and continued writing it until earlier this year. He never missed a column deadline in all those years.

In 1994, Johns Hopkins University Press published Sherwood's well-received "Maryland's Vanishing Lives," illustrated with photographs by Edwin H. Remsberg, which chronicled the ways of life of Marylanders who, like Tony the baker, worked at tasks that were fast becoming antique. The book is a compendium of the many crafts, occupations and skills which are vanishing not only in Maryland but throughout the country — a testimonial to a disappearing world. It remains in print today.

Attribution: Winston Grooom, Capital Gazette
Full story: Forest Gump author remembers Severna Park sailor and journalist Jack Sherwood