The Dundalk Eagle story
Thursday, 23 April 2009 19:37

 

Oelkes Established A True Community Paper


"When I was in high school, I had two ambitions: To be a baseball player and to be a newsman,'' Kimbel E. Oelke (1917-1998) said in his office in 1994. You won't find Oelke's name in The Baseball Encyclopedia, but the .300-hitting outfielder and middle infielder made a name for himself in that other profession. If "Scoop'' Oelke never had picked up a newspaper, he still would be an all-star citizen. But it's his 50-plus years as an editor and publisher that helped him gain prominence in the community. He has served that community well, helping to establish the Dundalk Library, the Dundalk Chamber of Commerce, the Dundalk Association of Businesses and the Greater Dundalk Sports Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted in 1993. When all his contributions are assessed, though, his founding of The Dundalk Eagle with his wife, Mary, 30 years ago ranks as his greatest achievement. And Oelke, though not one who often boasted of his accomplishments, surely would have been quick to note that starting The Eagle was a particularly American act of entrepreneurship: Seeking a need and filling it.

Oelke's status as Dundalk's primary journalist actually predates The Eagle by three decades. Sometime in the 1930s, he realized that his .300 batting average with various school and sandlot teams was not good enough to merit a chance at playing professional baseball. "I loved the game, but I wasn't a good ballplayer,'' he recalled. Nor did his above-average soccer or track skills merit a paycheck.

Fortunately, Oelke didn't bank his future on athletics. After graduating from Sparrows Point High School in 1935, he took evening classes at City College and improved his spelling by reading a dictionary. Unsure of public speaking, he turned to expressing himself in writing.

His newspaper career began in 1938, when he started a two-year stint as sports editor for Dundalk's Community Press, a broadsheet owned by Stromberg Publications. Oelke was promoted to editor in 1945.

His next assignment was more than 5,000 miles away. During four years of service with the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1946, Oelke at one time was assistant editor of Kaleo O Hawii, a newspaper based at the University of Hawaii.

Sports still were a part of his life, though. While stationed in Hawaii, he once officiated a tennis match involving Bobby Riggs.

After the war, Oelke returned to his job at The Community Press and took night classes at University of Baltimore Law School, from which he later graduated.

 
 

He then made an important visit to his hometown of Louisville, Ky. There, he met fellow Louisville native Mary Georgina Jarboe. They were married six months later.

Oelke's duties with Stromberg continued to grow, especially after owner Paul G. Stromberg died and the chain of papers he ran was turned over to stepson Charles Gerwig. By 1962, Oelke was in charge of both The Community Press, which was published from an office in the Dunkirk Building, and The Eastern Beacon, a tabloid based on Eastern Avenue in Essex. Oelke had started The Beacon for the Stromberg group in 1962.

Meanwhile, Oelke's family continued to grow, and to move. Oelke had moved from Louisville to Sunship Road at age 7 when his father, a foreman for American Standard, was transferred to the company's Holabird Avenue site. After marriage, the Oelkes lived on Broadship and on Sollers Point Road. In 1952, he and Mary moved to Ilchester in Howard County. They had 11 children.

Family responsibilities and growing newspaper pressures made for some long days. "I remember getting 15 minutes' sleep one night,'' Oelke said.

Besides being harried, though, Oelke was becoming increasingly annoyed over the direction the Dundalk paper was taking.The chain of papers was expanded and renamed in 1968. Without warning, Oelke was dropped from the Dundalk paper's operation. He was made operation manager of the original Essex Times and was directed to help start a paper in Towson.

The Times papers, scattered about Baltimore County, ran some of the same information in their various editions. Local news in the Dundalk paper suffered, the Oelkes felt.

"The Community Calendar listed things that were happening in Ellicott City,'' Mary Oelke said.

"They didn't have real interest in the community,'' Kimbel Oelke said.

At first, in his early 50s with a large family depending on his income, Oelke was reluctant to complain too much, except in private. But as the months went by with no improvement in The Dundalk Times, Mary encouraged him to do what was on his mind.

"I quit,'' he said. "I took two of the men that were working on The Community Press, and they helped me start The Eagle.''

Dundalk's new tabloid debuted May 15, 1969. It was bankrolled by the Oelkes' savings and the proceeds from the sale of a building in Ellicott City. Start-up costs were about $20,000.

 
 

The first office was at 38 N. Dundalk Ave., formerly Skyview restaurant. The staff consisted of editor-publisher Oelke, general manager Edward J. Walsh, advertising manager Edward J. Potocki, office manager Constance J. Stefanik and layout composer/bookkeeper Mary Oelke.

Ten thousand copies of the first issue were distributed for free throughout Dundalk and Edgemere. Subscriptions were sold for $1 per year. Paid subscriptions quickly reached 500, which enabled the paper to get a second-class postal permit that allowed The Eagle to be delivered by mail.

"It was amazing,'' Mary Oelke said. "We didn't expect the paper to take off like it did. But we knew from the beginning it was going to go. There was a need.''

From its first words, The Dundalk Eagle was very much a Kimbel Oelke publication. Above the paper's namesake logo - drawn by Mary Oelke and still in use until recently - was The Eagle's Oelke-penned first byline, "Dundalk Now Has Its Own Newspaper.''

He explained the paper's origin and his intentions to treat everyone equally. Many editorial decisions were left up to the readers, and their opinions were included in a letters page entitled By The People.

It's no wonder the paper was named after a national symbol. Especially in its early years, when sentiment against the Vietnam War was swelling in the United States, The Eagle remained fiercely patriotic. One of its longest-running features, Our Heroes (now Roll Call), a roundup of short pieces about local men and women in t he military services, was a direct response.

The paper's characteristic homespun flavor was apparent in the first issue, which included two features that are still printed weekly: DunTalk, now called Talk of the Town, collects tidbits about local folks, and Mystery Beauty continues to perplex and amuse readers.

For years, Oelke wrote about half of everything that appeared in the paper, which for several years numbered between 24 and 32 pages per issue. He took plenty of news tips in person and over the phone, and he was a familiar face at the local fire station and courthouse and the old Dundalk Police Station on Shipping Place.

Once, he had a lieutenant roused from his sleep at 5 a.m. because a patrolman wasn't allowing him to take a look at the latest batch of police reports. The bleary-eyed lieutenant showed up, and Oelke saw the reports.

If an article wasn't written by Oelke, it probably was submitted by a Dundalk resident. Reports from readers ran alongside dispatches from the editor.

"We ran all the stuff the Sunpapers wouldn't,'' Mary Oelke recalled. "The Sunpapers couldn't fool around with all that 'itsy-bitsy' stuff. We could.''

One of Kimbel Oelke's more endearing qualities was his reluctance to tell people no. As policy, that occasionally backfired.

"We used to run everybody's birthday in the paper,'' Oelke said. "Then we realized that everybody has a birthday, and we couldn't keep up with it.''

The Eagle built a reputation for making ordinary citizens feel important by printing wedding announcements, obituaries, student honor rolls, church announcements and recreation league results.

 
 

And plenty of pictures. Photographs of school-age kids, members of service organizations, contest winners and other individuals have graced The Eagle's pages for a quarter-century. Legend has it that everyone who grows up in Dundalk appears in The Eagle at least once.

Whether or not that's true, the formula has worked well enough for the Oelkes' paper to have long since outlasted The Dundalk Times, which folded in a few years, and The Eye, which published in Dundalk in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The Eagle's current paid circulation, about 23,000, is the best among Baltimore County weeklies, and one of the best in Maryland.

Over the years, The Eagle has undergone many changes. In 1982, its offices moved to the old Reier House on N. Center Place. Computers were added in 1989. Staff members have come and gone.

The Oelkes have remained the one constant. Where many weeklies have been gobbled up by corporations, The Eagle is in many ways a family business.

In some cases, that's literally true. Various members of the Oelke family have worked at the paper at one time or another. Today, three of their eight daughters have a hand in the paper's production: Deborah Cornely is the managing editor, Kim Boone is in charge of advertising and Barbara Oelke is a production assistant. And Jonathan Kimbel O'Neill, Kimbel and Mary's grandson, recently returned to the paper as its Webmaster.

Mary Oelke continues to work as The Eagle's publisher.

Kimbel Oelke suffered a mild stroke in 1986, spending a week at Church Home Hospital. Cornely, his second-oldest daughter, took over as managing editor. When he returned to work, he found that the "vacation'' had recharged him. He resumed full-time duty with The Eagle until October 1993, when illness began to slow him down. Even after his retirement, he still visited the paper frequently to keep an eye on his creation.

Kimbel Oelke died of a heart attack on Aug. 2, 1998 as he attended morning Mass at St. Rita's Church with Mary. He was 80.