Joan Maloney's Interest In History Didn't End With Retirement

By: Debra Lawless

Chatham resident Joan Maloney has spent her retirement writing books of local history. DEBRA LAWLESS PHOTO

People who teach sometimes dislike the month of August, because their days back in the classroom are inching closer.

For Joan M. Maloney of Chatham, Labor Day weekend meant that she had to leave Chatham and return to her work-a-day world as a professor at Salem State University in Salem. Maloney retired on Jan. 1, 1999, and on the first Labor Day when she didn’t have to return to work, she staged a kind of celebration.

“I sat in a chair on Harding's Beach—it was pouring rain—because I could do it,” she says.

On this sunny Saturday afternoon Maloney is seated in a back room of the Brooks Academy Museum at 80 Parallel St., home to the Harwich Historical Society. Built in 1844, the private Pine Grove Academy was the town’s first high school. In 1880, after Pine Grove Academy closed, Harwich High School opened in the building; classes were held here until 1937. The Harwich Historical Society is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year and considering Maloney’s contributions to Harwich’s history, this is an appropriate place to meet.

Growing up in Washington, D.C. Maloney was steeped in history from an early age.

“It was a great place to grow up,” she remembers. When visitors came to D.C., Maloney’s family acted as tour guides. She remembers, at age seven or eight, being taken to the grave of Mary Surrat, the boarding house owner convicted of conspiring to kill President Lincoln. Maloney’s father impressed upon her that Surrat was the first woman executed by the federal government.

Later, when Maloney was a student at Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University), she worked at Ford’s Theatre, the site of Lincoln’s 1865 assassination. Near her desk was a piece of Lincoln’s skull. “They couldn’t put it out because people would complain,” she says. At the side of the desk, John Wilkes Booth’s footprints were carved in the floor to illustrate his escape route.

After college, Maloney went on to earn a Ph.D. in history at Georgetown University.

While she primarily studied American history, she also researched China. China had intrigued her ever since, during her days in a parochial school, a nun had passed around a box with a picture of a starving Chinese child on it. The idea was for the children to donate their candy money to feed the hungry child. The nun told the children that when the box was full, they would be allowed to name the child. The consensus on the playground was that the child should be named “Gene Autry” after the singing cowboy.

After earning her Ph.D., Maloney taught briefly at Rosemont College in Pennsylvania, then went on to Salem State in 1964. She planned to stay there for three years but ended up staying for 35.

Maloney co-authored two books on China and taught Chinese history at the graduate level. She also visited China after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. She recalls the people at that time as being mistrustful of foreigners but also very generous.

Maloney’s parents had always had a house in Chatham where they could retreat from Washington, D.C.’s swampy summers. When she retired, Maloney, like her parents before her, moved to Chatham.

So after that rainy Labor Day on Harding's Beach, Maloney asked herself what she wanted to do next. Generally, people who retire answer that question with “all the things I couldn’t do before.” Maloney’s answer was to write books on local history. Although she had retired from her teaching career, she had not retired from her study of history. Her first book, “Community Life 1855-1955: Harwich and the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank” was published in 2001. A handsome painting by Milton H. Welt of the now-demolished Exchange Building in Harwich Center graces the book’s cover.

“I like people,” she says. “I see history as the people.”

Maloney began researching the book while asking the following question: “How does a community change if something comes in to it?” Specifically, how did the bank shape the community, and how did the community shape the bank?

To write the book, she needed to find what she calls “a rich source of documents.” She found that in the archives of both the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank and the Harwich Historical Society.

The fascinating Brooks family had much to do with shaping the bank. Obed Brooks Jr. (1809-1882) was one of the five original founders of Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank in 1856 and served as its treasurer. You could open an account with a deposit of five cents. The Brooks name remains on many buildings in Harwich Center as well as the local park.

After publishing her book, Maloney moved on to organizing an exhibit featuring often-overlooked female veterans of WWII. The exhibit included uniforms and photographs as well as a round-table panel discussion by the veterans themselves.

The exhibit proved “you could make history interesting,” Maloney says.

Maloney soon followed her first book with “Harwich,” a part of Arcadia Press’s “Images of America” series. And in 2013, with Carole DeChristopher, she published “Harwich Through Time.”