She was always just “Mary” to us.
“Who’s the photographer?” we’d ask.
“Mary,” the answer came.
“Who’s editing the photos?”
The response was inevitably the same. “Good.” If Mary was shooting, you’d get first class work. If Mary was editing, you’d get undivided attention.
Everyone knew Mary, journalists and athletes alike. And everyone respected her. Once, during a Red Wings game in the late 1980s, the captain, Steve Yzerman, got called for a penalty. He was furious as he headed to the box and was cursing up a blue streak. Then he spotted Mary, crouched in her normal photo spot.
“Sorry, Mary,” Yzerman said, sheepishly.
Therein lies the legend of 63-year-old Mary Schroeder: a woman so admired she got hockey players to apologize for bad language.
I write about her today because she is entering the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, the first photographer and first female member of the media to earn that honor. I also write about her because she’s a friend.
But mostly I write about her because she deserves recognition, for a life well lived in a field she loved, and for being an example to so many others.
Maybe there’s a young girl reading this thinking, “Hey, I could be a photographer.” That was Mary Schroeder when she was 9 years old, the daughter of a truck driver in the small city of Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
“I wanted to draw but I was too bad at drawing,” she says. So she took her mother’s old Kodak and began snapping pictures. Her first ones were of trees in a nearby park. She’d drop the film at Glenn’s Camera store and wait a week for the photos to return.
A few years later, at 12, she saved up her babysitting money and bought a Kodak X-15 Instamatic from that same store. And she took more photos. People. Scenery.
In high school she began to develop her own pictures in a darkroom. She was in charge of the yearbook. She shot for the school paper. She chose her college, Ohio University, in order to study photography.
And once there, she began to focus on sports. She liked it because “it was fast.” She shot for the student newspaper, football, basketball, track. One time, in a photojournalism class, the professor put up one of her shots and announced, “This is a bad picture. It’s nothing but the players’ backs.”
Mary cringed. But she also learned a lesson. “We communicate with our eyes,” she says now, “and in a photograph, you want to communicate with the subject. I was capturing their backs.”
So how did you change your technique? I ask.
“I moved around to the front.”
The Mother lode
Have you ever known someone who just seemed born for the job they took? Mary Schroeder was like that. She always knew she wanted to work for a newspaper, and before she graduated in 1979, she got a return call from the Detroit Free Press for a summer internship. The man who called her was the legendary Tony Spina, who back then was the Freep’s chief photographer. He only asked Mary three questions. Do you have a camera? Do you have a car? Do you like Detroit?
“I said yes to everything — even though I had never been there,” she recalls. “And he said, ‘OK, you have the internship.’ ”
She remembers jumping up and down for joy, so hard that when she ran downstairs to tell everyone in the student newspaper, she found them cowering under desks, certain that she was going to burst through the old wooden floors.
She was 21 years old.
Mary would work at the Free Press for the next 40 years. In her first week at the paper, she was assigned to cover the arrival of Mother Teresa. She joined the pack of photographers at the airport, snapping away at the beloved nun. But then, somehow, she found the courage to ask Mother Teresa if she could accompany her to the new convent she was visiting.
And Mother Teresa said yes.
“So here I am, born and raised Catholic. And I’m alone with this living saint, photographing her. And that was within a week of my coming to the paper.”
Told you she was good.
Mary and Gibby
Mary would focus solely on sports for more than a decade, from 1983 to 1994, during which time she took one of the most iconic photos in Detroit sports history: Kirk Gibson leaping for joy after homering in the final game of the Tigers’ 1984 World Series victory.
That photo has been used countless times around the world, in broadcast, in reprints, in books. It started a relationship with Gibson that surprised many, because he was known during his playing days to be, shall we say, not so crazy about folks in the media.
“He was always great with me,” Mary recalls. “With Kirk, I would say, ‘This is what I want to do.’ And he would say, ‘Yes, Mary. When?’ ”
She just had that way about her. She was cheerful, polite, unfailingly honest with her subjects. She told them what she wanted to do, where it was going to run, and she always delivered.
It didn’t hurt that her work was excellent. One time, she was granted five minutes with Sparky Anderson in spring training. She took a photo with fireworks going off behind him.
Two days later, Sparky asked if he could have 24 copies.
Mary photographed sports during a time when few women were doing it, and those who did, like female reporters, faced a wall of resistance from certain teams. The Lions, in the mid-1980s, denied Mary entrance into the locker room, until a lawsuit helped grant equal access.
“I never had a hard time after that,” she says. “I always treated everyone with respect. I learned that in a locker room, you keep your eyes looking at the players’ eyes or looking at the floor.
“Also,” she adds, “you have to be careful where your camera is pointed.”
‘I was just nosy’
Those of us who wrote sports for a living loved having Mary along on assignments. You knew she was going to get the best shots. And she was invariably cheerful, her thick, dark hair always in that short, youthful cut, her smile 100 watts of wonder and joy. She had great ideas. A great eye. And a journalist’s sense of telling a story — through sports, or the many other subjects she captured for this newspaper over four decades.
Don’t misunderstand. Mary has had her share of challenges. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000, when she was 43. She bravely fought its limitations over the years. She finally retired in 2019, to much acclaim. It’s only fitting she learned she was getting into the Hall of Fame on a Zoom call with — are you ready? — Kirk Gibson.
And she still has that old Kodak X-15. It sits proudly on her shelf.
“Basically, I was just nosy,” she says, in typical self-deprecation, summing up her career. “I liked to learn about other people’s stories. I listened. You have to listen to people’s stories to know how to take the right pictures.”
Check out Mary’s work. You’ll see the stories in those images, be they of Yzerman hoisting the Stanley Cup, Billy Sims in a wheelchair after his career-ending injury, onlookers with amazed looks as the old Hudson’s building is exploded, Rosa Parks waving, Mother Teresa praying, Bo Schembechler screaming, or a lone ice fisherman on the St. Clair River.
Every picture tells a story. But not every picture tells the whole story. Mary was brilliant at that, and her entrance into the Hall of Fame could not be more deserving.
Once she sat by a penalty box as the door swung open for a future legend. Today, a door swings open for her. She’s her own legend now, the newest addition to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. Mary, our Mary, everyone’s Mary, walks in proudly.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.