SOUTHWEST HARBOR— Monday was Mary Laurence Flynn’s last day of work, and now that she has some time, she is hoping to enjoy the trails in Acadia National Park a bit more.
“I’ve been sitting inside for the last seven months,” she said in a conversation with the Islander, referring to working remotely during the pandemic.
On Sunday, Flynn, a senior producer editorial strategist for NBC News, had a retirement celebration via Zoom with some of the top people in journalism from around the world.
“I love telling stories,” said Flynn, who has a million to tell from her career traveling around the world and working on some of the most important news stories of the last 40 years. “I always loved history. I used to grab my dad’s New York Times when he’d come off the train. It was like I was hard-wired at a young age.
“I didn’t have a clue how to do this but I wanted to be in the front seat of history,” added Flynn, who graduated from Hollins University with a degree in political philosophy. “I’m one of those people who have been so lucky to follow my passion.”
When she began at a local television station in Texas at the age of 21, it didn’t take long before Flynn was moving up the ladder.
“Within a few months, I was producing the 5 o’clock news with Dennis Murphy,” she said, about the Emmy-winning NBC journalist. “He really schooled me on how to write for TV news. You write from your gut. You have to find your own voice in any effective storytelling.”
At 23-years-old, her first day at NBC Nightly News was the day newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was arrested.
“It was absolutely like out of the movies, front page, it was sheer bedlam,” she said, noting there were only three women working in the network news department at the time. “Within a year or two, I became one of the youngest producers on the show. When I got promoted, I heard one of my older male colleagues had asked, ‘why are you giving this young girl in a kilt the job?’”
To say she is an award-winning journalist is an understatement. Flynn has won 16 Emmys, having been nominated 60 times, three DuPont awards, several Overseas Press Club awards, numerous Edward R. Murrow awards and the Gracie Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Throughout her colorful career, Flynn has been the NBC producer for monumental historical events such as George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign, eight Olympic games, South Africa’s presidential election of Nelson Mandela, Princess Diana’s funeral, the Rwanda massacre, the Haiti coup, the 2011 Royal Wedding, the Ebola Crisis and the Paris attacks. She has produced interviews with such leaders as Fidel Castro, Vladimir Putin, Pervez Musharraf and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Over the last 40 years, many things have changed in the field of journalism. One of the biggest differences is the amount of equipment needed to record a story, which has gone from cases and cases of gear to being able to use an iPhone.
“When I would go on a story anywhere in the country, it was like a circus,” she said, recalling the first time she covered an international conflict. “My first war story was in Lebanon in 1982. I got on the plane to fly to Israel with 50 cases of gear… That has been the biggest change is the immediacy of being able to turn a story.”
There are certain stories in Flynn’s career that have left an impression. Covering the war in Lebanon was her first time doing so and the carnage was something she’ll never forget.
“There were charred, dead bodies in the streets. I had never seen that,” she said. “That was a very visceral experience, there’s no question.”
There are several of stories that Flynn says were very searing. In 1994, she went to manage coverage of Mandela’s election and was preparing to return when she got a call at 1 a.m. about 10,000 people an hour moving from Rwanda into Tanzania. She went to Nairobi, got on a small plane and was looking for the place they were crossing.
“We found these, by then 250,000, refugees in a field, carrying everything they owned on their backs, probably had been walking for weeks” she said. “There were dead bodies coming over the river, chopped up and whatnot. So many people had lost relatives in a very, very brutal way. So that was biblical, that experience.
“You always want your stories to come alive,” Flynn added. “You never lose sight that this is a responsibility and privilege you are telling these peoples’ stories, making sure you are telling these stories clearly. You want people to feel they are part of the journey.”
Her journey to Maine began as a young girl when her family spent summers in Kennebunkport. It wasn’t until later in her life that she made her way to Mount Desert Island because her sister had moved here. Around the turn of the century, Flynn had planned to purchase property on Clark Point Road, but then 9/11 happened and she put those plans off until 2015. Five years ago, she found a home in the Seawall area and has been there, working remotely, much of this year.
“The best part of moving here has been my neighbors,” said Flynn who joked about how she needs to step up her appetizer game for when it is again okay to socialize.
In addition to enjoying the park, Flynn is looking forward to mentoring young writers and splitting her time between Austin, New York City and Southwest Harbor.
“I am so impressed with the good work so many people are doing here on Mount Desert Island,” she said. “I feel so blessed to be here. It is such a beautiful place. I’ve been so many places around the world and this has to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. And the spirit of the people is even more impressive than the beauty of the island.”