Margaret "Peg" Gibbons, 69, a journalist believed to have had the longest tenure in the Montgomery County Courthouse press corps, and respected by politicians and government officials despite her withering questioning of their policies, practices, and motives, died of a heart attack March 30, at her Lansdale home.
Ms. Gibbons was often likened to Helen Thomas, the veteran White House correspondent who covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama. Ms. Gibbons covered Montgomery County government and politics for about 40 years, employed first by Montgomery Publishing, then the Times Herald of Norristown, and finally Calkins Newspapers, where she worked from 2008 until last fall, when the family-owned chain was sold to Gatehouse Media L.L.C. and her job was eliminated.
In true style, she marked the occasion with a witty tweet on Sept. 12:
"Now you C me. Now you won't. The Montco Bureau has shut down. Thank U all 4 a great ride! And remember, the Bureau Chief lives on twitter"
Her departure was decried by many, including one of the government officials whom Ms. Gibbons scrutinized: Montgomery County Commissioner Chair Val Arkoosh. She wrote about the prolific reporter's contributions as part of a Nov. 1 op-ed in the Inquirer about the state of local journalism — "the watchdog of our townships, boroughs, school boards and counties."
"Peg was often a thorn in our side — asking tough questions and holding us accountable when we made a choice that impacted residents," Arkoosh wrote, adding " … She knew more about Montgomery County than most of us will ever be able to learn."
Born in Abington, she was a daughter of John E. and Ruth Gibbons. Ms. Gibbons never married or had children of her own, but was a generous aunt who adored her nieces and nephews, relishing time with them on trips to Disney World and during "family week at the Shore" each summer in Avalon, N.J.
A graduate of Pennsylvania State University, Ms. Gibbons was an ardent fan of the Nittany Lions football team. She was also well-traveled, logging trips to Moscow, Australia, and the Caribbean, among other places. Locally, she was a regular at the annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, held the third weekend in August — the month she was born.
At work, Ms. Gibbons was serious business, known for her unrelenting pursuit of answers from elected officials, especially at Montgomery County Commissioners meetings, where her questions were often dreaded.
"She was skeptical of the public statements that politicians make," said Joe Hoeffel, a former commissioner and congressman. "She would get up to the line in asking her questions in an insulting way, but never crossed the line. … She was trying to get us off of our talking points … to try to get us to say something unscripted."
Annoying? Frustrating? Sometimes, said Hoeffel, who nonetheless praised Ms. Gibbons' journalism.
"Peg was the toughest and fairest journalist that ever asked me a question," he said. "The public was very well-served if they were regular readers of Peggy Gibbons."
Her bosses agreed.
"Peg Gibbons was the personification of public-service journalism," said Patricia S. Meagher-Walker, retired executive editor of the Bucks County Courier Times and the Intelligencer, part of the former Calkins chain. "She held her loyalty to journalism and the community in the highest regard. She was a true defender of the First Amendment."
As tough as nails, Ms. Gibbons was a picky eater with a diet that would give nutritionists the shakes: Coke and Velveeta were her daily staples. Her celebratory drink: Coors Light. Her culinary skills were few. But her corn-shucking drew raves. She would remove every single strand of silk, meticulously examining a cob before relinquishing it for boiling.
She loved skiing, rollerblading, golf, sports cars, and the Smurfs.
She signed correspondences to fellow journalists not with her name, but with "The Bureau," shorthand for her courthouse assignment. The Christmas cards she sent always featured doves, a symbol of peace.
Always a compassionate listener, Ms. Gibbons was unwaveringly private, never letting down her guard.
Jay Lloyd worked with her in the courthouse press room for more than 25 years as the suburban bureau chief for KYW news radio before retiring in 2005. Lloyd recalled his last day there, when hugs from colleagues and courthouse personnel were plentiful. Except from Ms. Gibbons.
"She put out a hand [to shake]," Lloyd recalled Saturday. "And I thought later, 'I should have just grabbed her and hugged her anyway.' "
Ms. Gibbons is survived by a sister, Pat; a brother, William; seven nieces and nephews; as well as three great-nieces and nephews. A brother, Phil, preceded her in death.
A memorial service will be held Saturday, April 7, from 10 to 11 a.m., followed by prayers and an opportunity to speak about Ms. Gibbons from 11 a.m. to noon, at Huff & Lakjer Funeral Home, 701 Derstine Ave., Lansdale, Pa.