You are the owner of this article.

Her husband was killed at the newspaper he loved. Now she's finishing his life's work.

  • 0
  • 7 min to read

She found his notes just as he left them: filed away in folders and boxes on the floor of his den, crammed with newspaper clippings and handwritten outlines. In neat Catholic-school script, he laid out every chapter of what would end up being his last book. He began on legal pads and continued on the computer. He saved everything, backing it up three or four times.

He didn’t want to lose a word.

Andrea Chamblee had never seen the drafts her husband agonized over for more than 10 years. John McNamara, 56, was almost done when he went to work on June 28, 2018.

That day, a gunman with a vendetta against the Annapolis Capital Gazette stormed the newsroom just after 2:30 p.m. Wielding a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, the shooter walked through the office and fired repeatedly, killing five people before he hid under a desk as authorities arrived.

Minutes later, Andrea’s phone lit up. She was getting texts and urgent messages. What’s happening? She didn’t know. News of the shooting flashed across a TV in her office, a government agency where she works as a lawyer. She called her husband twice, but he didn’t answer.

The week that followed, she said, was a blur.

There were flowers, funeral arrangements, media calls for quotes. Then, after the service, as the mourners left town and the story of the shooting that killed her husband fell out of the headlines, Andrea remembered the boxes and the notes. A decade of work was right there, in chapters and outlines on the floor of his study. All it needed was a beginning and an end.

John was a longtime sportswriter who spent years covering high school and college athletics, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of his beat. In 2007, when local basketball luminary Bob Dwyer died, John decided someone needed to document the game’s long legacy in the Washington D.C. region, lest its most important figures pass before telling their stories. Then John was gone, too.

Andrea started writing.

“If John could ask me to do anything, I know he’d ask me to finish this,” she said. “I already feel like I promised him. It’s a love letter to John, and it’s a promise I want to keep.”

Nearly 1,200 people have been killed in more than 160 public mass shootings since 1966, a narrowly defined category accounting for a small fraction of gun violence in the United States. Yet, these massacres are unique in their ability to render terror without warning. Those almost 1,200 deaths hint at an even longer list of second- and third-order victims, people whose friends and family are yanked away from them, and who must then reckon with all that is left behind.

A year after the Capital shooting, much is unfinished.

The trial for the man charged with murder has been delayed, and a bill that would have regulated the type of gun he used failed in the legislature. The staff worked from a temporary office for 11 months. They didn’t go back to the building where John, assistant editor Rob Hiaasen, editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, sales assistant Rebecca Smith and reporter Wendi Winters were killed.

Andrea, now 58, plans to sell her Silver Spring, Maryland, home. Memories lurk around every corner, inside every closet and drawer. Papers are piling up — copies of speeches she’s given and thank-you notes she’ll send. John’s picture hangs above her staircase. She keeps tissues on the step below.

The boxes are still in his study, too, but now a binder with the book’s proofed pages rests on his desk.

“This is the last piece of John I’ll have, and I don’t want to share it,” she said. “I want to keep it and be selfish and put it under my pillow, but that’s not what John would have wanted, so I’m going to have to let it go.”

'Is this what you want me to do?'

The young couple fell in love talking sports at the University of Maryland. John sneaked Andrea into the press box when he covered games. She grilled players in postgame interviews and fed him quotes. When he wasn’t working, they would watch together.

“He would yell at the TV a lot and scare my cat,” Andrea said.

John was one part color commentator, one part professor. He was an increasingly rare breed of sports reporter, someone who covered the same beat for decades, who knew a team’s history and who was part of it, too.

He rarely included photo captions in his drafts because he knew nearly everyone pictured, but Andrea spent hours struggling to identify all the players in John’s book, hours thinking how much easier it would be with her husband next to her.

“I felt his absence when I was working on it,” she said. “He didn’t have to look up any of the stuff I had to look up.”

“Yeah,” she said again, flipping through the book’s photos, “I felt his absence, but that’s not different than any other day.”

When they were young, he left handwritten poems on her car windshield, and when they bought a house together, he helped her iron their sheets. In the press box and in the laundry room, they were a team.

That’s what she remembers now when she wakes up, often well before dawn. So instead of sleeping at night, she works. There is always plenty to do, even after she finished the book. Her day job, for one, and a larger role at a gun control advocacy organization. She does power yoga and cardio workouts three times a week each, and she has two temporary tattoos — “warrior” and “keep going” — that she replaces once a month.

Some days she wears one of John’s press passes under her shirt. He’s smiling wide in the photo.

“I say, ‘How am I doing? Is this what you want me to do?’ ” she said, holding up the laminated card on its red lanyard. “The press pass doesn’t say anything back.”

'A guy's life dream'

John didn’t let his wife read anything he wrote until it was published, and he didn’t let her know when his stories would run. She set up a Google alert for his name to keep track. Andrea didn’t know how much progress he had made on the book, either.

She asked David Elfin, a friend of John’s since the 1980s, for help sorting through the material. Elfin and John co-wrote a book once before, about the history of the University of Maryland’s old basketball arena.

It took Elfin about half a year to read all his friend’s chapters, edit them and finish the final one. As he worked, he recalled the sweltering College Park summer he and John spent researching their first book — long days in the Cole Field House basement with no air conditioning. Roughly 17 years later, as he finished his friend’s sentences, Elfin said he felt as close to John as ever.

“Not a day goes by, even after I finished the project, when I don’t think about John,” Elfin said. “I hope that we made him proud. I know Andrea did, and I hope I did, too.”

The book covers 100 years of high school basketball in the region, from the first game played in 1900, to the induction of one of the game’s greatest coaches, DeMatha Catholic’s Morgan Wootten, into the Hall of Fame in 2000.

It’s a story of civil rights heroes and NBA legends. It’s 328 pages of history few others could have accomplished, but John, who was born in Washington and never left the area, dedicated his life to it.

“You can just feel how much work and love went into that book,” said Mike Ashley, a freelance sportswriter who met John covering games in Maryland. “It’s not just finishing a guy’s book. It’s finishing a guy’s life dream.”

'That's why I'm doing this'

After John was killed, Andrea got a letter from his life insurance provider, telling her the company wouldn’t pay her claim unless she proved she wasn’t responsible for his death. A company executive called later saying he saw her name in the paper. He apologized and promised to pay her.

Moments like that have happened a lot since John’s death. Like how, after more than a year, she continues paying his monthly phone bill because the police still have his device, with all his pictures and text messages. On Facebook, Andrea calls this stuff her “Absurdity of the Day.”

In those posts, she diaries her grief, triumphs and perseverance: sleepless nights and new personal-best plank times, recording podcasts and finding old photos. She also tangles with provocateurs and politicians.

Her husband’s death threw Andrea into the national spotlight. Like the parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary and the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas before her, Andrea became an outspoken advocate for gun control. Too often, she said, lawmakers standing in the way of gun reform blame shooting victims and their families — for taking their own lives, or living in a “bad neighborhood,” or not surrounding their schools with armed guards.

“They act like this couldn’t happen to them,” Andrea said. “So that’s my role, to make them think how this could happen to them. I’ve decided I have to be in their face and make them look at what they’ve wrought.”

Soon after, men began to harass her online. One found her personal email and signed her up for newsletters from the National Rifle Association and Infowars, the site that has peddled conspiracy theories about mass shootings. Another man mailed her a gun magazine. The messages were menacing: We have your email, we know where you live.

At rallies, people argue the reforms she’s pushing for won’t save her husband, who was killed with a legally purchased gun, though the alleged shooter had a history of making violent, obscene threats on social media.

“I say, ‘You know, you’ve already missed the chance to save my husband,’ ” Andrea has replied. “ ‘I’m trying to save your husband or wife or kid.’ ”

“The Capital of Basketball” publishes in November. After that, Andrea doesn’t know what she’ll do with her husband’s notes and outlines. She sent photos of them to a museum dedicated to shooting victims and the things they left incomplete, but maybe John’s book, his dream, doesn’t belong there anymore.

“Maybe it won’t be incomplete,” Andrea said, looking over the boxes and folders, still on the floor of her husband’s study. She was holding the final draft she spent the last 12 months piecing together.

“Hopefully, it won’t be incomplete.”

Get our daily Headlines Newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Recommended for you

Load comments

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Breaking News