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Death of a Proofreader

The following piece, an appreciation of Martha Lee Benz, appeared in the October 7-14

issue of Bay Weekly (www.BayWeekly.com), which I co-founded and edited until 2020.


Martha Lee Benz did not let you lay an egg. A woman of words, she made a career of policing the troublesome verbs lie and lay. She knew how to put vagrant apostrophes in their place. She vigilantly protected her writers from the error of their words—and her publications from having the egg they lay/lie/laid all over their pages and editors’ faces.

For over a decade, Bay Weekly was the publication she protected.

In the early years of the paper, when I was editor, it occurred to me that we needed a dedicated proofreader. For our first decade or so, catching errors in our pages before they went to press depended on a shifting cast of writers. Now many of those standbys, like Darcey Dodd—who specialized in keeping verbs in the same tense throughout a story—had gone onto new things; in Darcey’s case twins.

“I bet we can get a volunteer, some retired gem,” I said, and placed a help-wanted ad in our pages of classified ads.

We struck gold when Martha Lee (“Thank you for calling me Martha Lee”) Benz answered our ad.

“What makes you think you can do the job?” I asked.

“I worked as an editor for the National Planning Association in Washington D.C., for more than 30 years,” she said. “I’m retired, but I want to keep my hand in.”

“You’re hired,” I said, swallowing my apprehension that this perfectly packaged professional woman knew my job better than I did.

Back then our office was in Deale, about 10 miles from her home, a traditional waterfront cottage in Holland Point at the end of Anne Arundel County. When our office moved to Annapolis in 2007, she followed us, adding 32 miles to her round-trip commute. Year in and year out, as her arthritis grew crueler, she appeared every Tuesday for her afternoon shift. In later years, she carried her rubber-padded pens and seat pillow, as well as her trusty ruler, to help her with the job.

Line after line she read, page after page as they flowed freshly laid out from Alex Knoll or Betsy Kehne’s computer to the printer. Week after week she kept us clear, correct and consistent. No page was safe to print until Martha Lee scrutinized it. For no matter how carefully we worked, we’d always left things only she would find.

The only devotions she held dearer than her job at Bay Weeklywere her daughter, Mollie Flounlacker, and grandchildren, Ian and Ella, whose births we celebrated with Martha Lee. Only their need for her kept her from her weekly place at her Bay Weekly desk and dictionary. (Well, also her foundling feral cats, if she had the mobile vet calling.)

If she missed a week, we’d say, “Well, there’ll be errors to find in this week’s paper.” Sure enough, readers would call to shame us with the mistakes they’d found.

So faithful was she that after she felt she could no longer make the drive, she hired a teenager as her chauffeur. Of course she didn’t tell us. In she’d walk, impeccably, often beautifully dressed as if for Washington, and we’d say, “Martha Lee is here. Bring on the pages.”

In our paper and in our hearts, Martha Lee was one of us.



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