Absurdity of Her Days
A year after her husband was killed in a mass shooting, Andrea Chamblee ’83 navigates grief by finishing his final book and taking a public role in gun-reform activism.by Liam Farrell | Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle
ANDREA CHAMBLEE SITS at what is now just her kitchen table, in just her dining room, in just her house in a D.C. suburb, and clutches a stack of pages to her chest.
Chamblee and her husband, John McNamara, met at the University of Maryland and were married two years after graduation. They are pictured on their honeymoon in May 1985 in the Poconos. Photo courtesy of Andrea Chamblee.
The manuscript is only a manuscript in the most literal sense, just as the summer shirts, winter coats and brand-new sneakers she gave away last year weren’t just shirts, coats and sneakers. The death of the person she loves most—John McNamara ’83, one of five Capital Gazette employees gunned down last year in their Annapolis newsroom—gave them a much deeper significance.
“I feel so torn about setting it free,” she says of the book, “The Capital of Basketball: A History of D.C. Area High School Hoops,” which McNamara had spent more than a decade compiling and had nearly completed before he died. “It’s kind of a last piece of him I have to let go. But I have to let it go.”
Finishing the final chapters, securing photo permissions and researching caption information for the book, scheduled for release by Georgetown University Press on Oct. 12, was a “much-needed distraction,” Chamblee ’83 says.
A government lawyer who asked an Amazon Alexa each morning how many days were left until the couple’s planned retirement (1,008 on the morning of the shootings), she has been navigating an alien landscape of grief while trying to piece together a new identity. She has become by turns a book agent, a philanthropist and a political activist railing against America’s plague of mass shootings.
“I’m determined to show up and talk about John and his work,” Chamblee says. “I want people to remember this is happening and the ripple effect is devastating and long lasting.
“And I keep thinking, if not me, then who?”
CHAMBLEE SPENT THE AFTERNOON and evening of June 28, 2018, in the panicked purgatory of an unanswered question: Is John OK?
She was working during the newsroom shootings, and a flurry of text messages soon alerted her that McNamara could be in danger. As nearby televisions carried early reports about the violence, Chamblee tried, and failed, repeatedly to reach her husband on his office and cell phones.
Reporters from The New York Post, New York Daily News and “Good Morning America” called, obliquely asking her for a comment without saying what specifically they wanted her to talk about. A Wall Street Journal reporter volunteered that McNamara might be among the injured, but officials at nearby Anne Arundel Medical Center and Baltimore’s R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center told Chamblee he wasn’t there.
After seven hours of waiting, detailed by Chamblee in an essay last July for The Washington Post, she answered yet another phone call from yet another unfamiliar number. This time, one of McNamara’s co-workers was on the other end. She was finally given the answer, as her own screams joined the anguished chorus audible over the line.
It was the cruelest of endings to a story that began on Halloween in 1981 at the old Varsity Grill on Route 1, after the Terps’ football game where star quarterback Boomer Esiason got carted off the field with a neck injury. Chamblee likes to say that talking to McNamara that night made her feel like the one seeing stars.
They got married two years after graduation—Chamblee’s mother memorably jumped into the hotel pool during the reception—and built their lives together. Chamblee graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law and was hired by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and McNamara, who had written for The Diamondback, worked for a variety of local newspapers before settling at The Capital.
“Johnny Mac,” as he was known, was a walking sports encyclopedia who earned praise from journalists and subjects alike for his ability to write without bias or pretense about Terps athletics, despite being a passionate fan. He never left the office without asking if there was something else he could do, and didn’t lose sight of how much it meant for young local athletes to see their name in print.
Even as The Capital’s sports staff shrank, and McNamara’s primary job changed to covering local news, he still wrote occasional sports features and kept a Sunday night shift copy-editing the sports pages.
“He was one dedicated guy and the best co-worker you could have,” says Gerry Jackson, McNamara’s editor. “John was a class-A writer, and he was always going to be a
McNamara had written books on Terps football (“University of Maryland Football Vault”) and basketball (“Cole Classics! Maryland Basketball’s Leading Men and Moments”), and had long thought the D.C. basketball scene was fodder for one as well. He got started on it in 2007, spurred by the death of former Archbishop Carroll coach Bob Dwyer and the worry that the rich stories of the pre-Internet age would disappear with its eyewitnesses. The book, which covers D.C. basketball from 1900–2000, chronicles characters and innovations from legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach and NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor to the High Point High School basketball coach who created a defensive system inspired by his son’s Transformers action figures.
David Elfin, a friend of McNamara’s since the early 1980s and co-author of “Cole Classics,” volunteered to help with this project following McNamara’s funeral service at Memorial Chapel.
“For (Chamblee), it’s a labor of love,” Elfin says. “For me, it’s a tribute.”
While covering sports can gradually erode a spectator’s passion, McNamara always loved high school basketball. The romance he found while attending his first prep game as a freshman at St. John’s in Washington, D.C.—a winter’s night’s clash against rival Archbishop Carroll, with raw and talented peers competing at just an arm’s length away— never faded.
“In terms of value for your entertainment dollar,” he wrote in his book’s preface last year, “I still believe you can’t beat a good high school basketball game.”
Chamblee marches with Cherie Baron (left) and her sister, Cindy (right), during a vigil held in downtown Annapolis the day after her husband and four other Capital Gazette employees were killed in June 2018. Photo by Calla Kessler/The Washington Post/Getty Images.
AFTER HIS WIFE DIED of cancer in the summer of 1960, C.S. Lewis began to write down his thoughts on life, death and faith. His goal in the journals that were later published, initially under a pseudonym, as “A Grief Observed,” was to “make a map of sorrow”—an ambition of emotional cartography that he eventually realized was futile.
“There is something new to be chronicled every day,” he wrote. “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape … Sometimes the surprise is the opposite one; you are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you left behind miles ago.”
Chamblee has a 21st-century version of this process on Facebook. Continually bumping the bruises of her new life—from forgetting to prepare just one serving of broccoli to battling the insurance company that denied her claim until she could prove she didn’t kill McNamara herself—she began posting summaries of them. They weren’t surreal, which felt like a description more suited for a fictional movie or a painting of melting clocks; they were “absurd.”
#AbsurdityoftheDay: The work phone rang at 7:15 and for a moment I thought it was John telling me to stop working and come home for dinner. But instead it was a spam call. Now it’s time to go to the dry cleaner before it closes to pick up my black dress for another event. (Oct. 25)
#AbsurdityoftheDay: Don’t watch “Say Yes to the Dress” when mourning your spouse, not even for a few minutes while waiting for a comedy show to start. (Dec. 30)
#AbsurdityoftheDay: I just answered a survey about me and my partner, until I got to the end and saw the option to choose “I don’t have a partner.” I didn’t choose that option. I couldn’t. (April 18)
Each post is a public glimpse, sometimes sorrowful, wry or frustrated, into the private battle of living alone in a life constructed for two. Even her house itself—an unassuming two-story on a quiet street in Silver Spring—is an antagonist, forcing Chamblee to avoid the den where McNamara worked or the patio where he listened to baseball games. It’s a place in the suspended animation of an abbreviated existence.
“Closure,” she says, “is a fantasy that people dangle.”
Chamblee has made efforts to chip away at the isolation, and has often found relief in the presence of her younger sister, Cindy, who provides companionship with yoga classes, open ears and a few glasses of wine.
“Andrea was never sad, before. She always had an optimism in her energy,” Cindy says. “Andrea is still the sister I have known, but now tragedy colors her tremendous strength.”
Maria Hiaasen, whose husband, Rob, was a Capital editor and Philip Merrill College of Journalism lecturer killed in the shootings, is serving along with Chamblee on a new Anne Arundel County task force focused on preventing gun violence. They’ve found similarities in their grief, from frustrations with the awkward things people say to an ever-present desire to just feel normal again.
“When I see posts of hers (on Facebook), I go, ‘Oh, yeah,’” Hiaasen says. “We’re up, we’re down, we’re all around. We’re trying to make sense of where we are now.”
Lewis stopped writing his travelogue of grief once he filled the four empty notebooks left in the house when his wife died; Chamblee, writing in the unlimited space of the internet, has no such definitive ending yet in mind.
“The first day that there’s no absurdity,” she says, “that will be my absurdity of the day.”
Chamblee has become a vocal advocate for stricter gun laws and attends rallies with groups such as Moms Demand Action. Photo by Brian Witte/AP.
WHEN CHAMBLEE STARTED LOBBYING for stricter gun regulations at the Annapolis State House early this year, she found the attention unsettling at first. It highlighted the two-sided nature of the gun violence problem, particularly in Maryland: While a mass shooting in a workplace like The Capital felt like a mobilizing, black swan event, the no less deadly, and much more constant, churn of gun deaths in Baltimore can often fade into the background.
So Chamblee brought Baltimore mothers to stand with her at press conferences, hoping media attention would coalesce around them as well. After working at the FDA during the AIDS epidemic, Chamblee knows that less powerful populations often only get help when a crisis hits the mainstream.
“(Politicians) can watch my new, awful life and hopefully be moved to do something,” Chamblee says.
While her Facebook page is a tool to show the vulnerability of someone affected by gun violence, Chamblee simultaneously has become a daring public face advocating for stronger gun regulations, testifying before legislators, attending Moms Demand Action rallies and speaking at community events like Ignite Annapolis.
Getting involved in a flashpoint issue in the State House was an “eye-opening experience,” Chamblee says. The legislature’s highest-profile gun bill, which sought to require background checks for private sales of guns, appeared to have enough momentum for passage, but differences between the House and Senate were never reconciled. That spurred acrimonious exchanges on social media and in letters to the editor between activists and politicians, but the conflict has only increased Chamblee’s resolve to return to Annapolis next year.
Every day, Chamblee wears the press pass issued to her husband for UMD sports events to honor his memory. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
A prolific traveler with her husband, Chamblee went to Cuba by herself for her birthday in March—wearing McNamara’s press pass, as she does every day, so he could see it as well. The trip spurred a question: “Am I allowed to feel happiness?”
“I think I’ll wait and see,” she says. “I’m not prepared to say yes or no.”
While she awaits an answer, time remorselessly carries her on, through remembrances and decisions, big and small. In May, Chamblee attended a reception for the Pulitzer Prizes, where The Capital staff received a special citation for “their courageous response to the largest killing of journalists in U.S. history.” Not long after, she went to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., as McNamara’s name was added to the memorial for journalists slain on the job. She also established a scholarship at Merrill College in his honor.
Sometimes she can even find comfort in quieter moments. In January, she spoke aloud to McNamara, as she often does, saying she wished she had been there as he was dying to tell him she loved him. She heard him reply that, in fact, she was.
“He doesn’t usually answer me,” Chamblee says. “But that was a nice one.” TERP
College Shared Annapolis Newsroom With Capital Staff
The rallying cry for the staff of The Capital immediately following last year’s mass shooting was: “We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” For the next 11 months, the Annapolis bureau of the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service helped ensure a paper went out every day after that.
“You can work from a garage, you can work from home, but at some point you need a place,” says Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Dalglish reached out to Trif Alatzas, editor and publisher of the Baltimore Sun Media Group, and offered the CNS space as a respite for the reeling staff. Located on Maryland Avenue just steps from the State House, the bureau provided a refuge as The Capital continued covering the community alongside Merrill College faculty and students. The newspaper staff moved to a new office in June.
“It was an honor to feel like we were able to do something to help,” Dalglish says.
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