by Marcy McGinnis
“How are you?” “How’s your mother?” “How’s your sister?” “How’s your college friend who lost her husband?” “Whatever happened with…?” “What did you do about…?” Did you get that new couch yet?” “Did you pick the tile for the bathroom?” “When can I see you?” “What can I bring?”
“Who me? I’m fine…now tell me about your vacation, your date, your work, your….”
Maria Mercader was, I guess, a typical journalist – always asking questions. But she was anything but typical. Maria asked you questions, not because she was producing a story, but because she wanted to know about you and your life. She cared about all the details – big and small, important and mundane, tangible and intangible. She remembered every story ever told to her – always asking about specific people or events in your life long after you had forgotten you’d even shared them. And whether it was over a glass of wine, a keyboard in the newsroom, or her own hospital room, she had an uncanny way of getting you to open up and trust her with what mattered to you – professionally and personally. Then, only after you’d exhausted your own windy tales, did she get down to two things she really loved – laughter and gossip – “Wait until you hear the latest – you won’t believe it…”
Maria came to CBS News from the CBS Page Program in 1988 to work in the newly-created department, CBS Newsnet – known now as CBS Newspath. I can’t remember exactly why I hired the adorable then 22-year old Filipino – maybe I needed diversity; maybe I loved that infectious smile; maybe I was relieved that she said she’d “do anything”; maybe we bonded over our height (or lack thereof) or maybe, I was just lucky.
Maria dove into the news business like she dove into friendships – headfirst, full throttle, all or nothing. Newspath is a service department – it serves CBS affiliates around the country and CBS clients around the world. And conversely, it helps the CBS News broadcasts obtain video and facilities from those same affiliates and foreign clients. The people at Newspath are trained to help other journalists – all over the country and all over the world. Maria epitomized the perfect Newspath employee.
After five years or so at Newspath where her last assignment was working the foreign side of the service, Maria was offered a job “downstairs” in the main newsroom – in what she called “the big leagues” on the CBS News Foreign Desk. By then, I was London Bureau Chief when she called to ask my advice. She was nearing 30 and thought the move felt right. My not-too-subtle, self-serving advice (I was on the foreign side after all), “Go for it!”
Maria spent the next 20+ years working primarily on the Foreign Desk. She also spent those same years battling cancer after cancer, health issue after health issue, but never giving up. She came to work with an IV-pole connected to a feeding tube; she came to work with no hair or eyelashes or eyebrows; she came to work when her skin became disfigured; she came to work bloated from steroids; she came to work using a walker or a cane. She came to work, she told me, because she needed to be with her friends so she could feel normal… and useful.
Useful is, of course, the understatement of this tale. Maria’s work on the Foreign and National Desks was notorious for being useful to others. There was nothing Maria wouldn’t do for her colleagues – her friends – who were being sent to cover the news – whether it be to hellholes in a war or famines or hurricanes or plane crashes or the death of a princess or a terror attack in lower Manhattan. The one constant – Maria Mercader – was always there to calm you and get you what you needed.
Maria’s devotion to journalism extended to helping other journalists near and far. She strove especially for inclusion, always believing no one should be left behind. She played significant roles in CBS News’ relationships with the Overseas Press Club of America, the OPC Foundation, the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Her most recent role as talent recruiter, gave Maria the perfect platform to make a difference in diversity hiring at the News Division.
In addition to her work, Maria helped save lives. Literally. Because of her own health battles – over 20 operations in as many years, she knew every doctor, every specialist at Memorial Sloan Kettering. She was their darling. She made so many referrals to those doctors, like when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and she made sure I had the right surgeon or when she got my brother-in-law an appointment with a prostate cancer specialist. Because of Maria, he is now cancer-free. There are scores and scores of similar stories of Maria hooking people up with MSK specialists over the last 20+ years. An angel? Oh, yes.
Brave, funny, strong, supportive, curious and loving, a bright light and a friend to all are just some of the ways that colleagues are describing our darling, sweet Maria at this time when she was taken from us far too soon.
As for myself, I miss my buddy, my pal, my confidant, my cheerleader – and the only person who really cared if I got the new tiles for my bathroom. Godspeed, Maria, until we meet again.
March 30, 2020