As Marian Calabro combed through archives for a corporate history book she was working on, she stumbled across an intriguing artifact: a faded photo taken by U.S. Marine Lou Lowery on February 23, 1945, of an American flag being planted on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Later that day, the Marines restaged the scene with a much larger flag for an Associated Press newsman to photograph, resulting in an iconic image from World War II.
But that earlier image found another type of fame when Lowery donated his original photo to the flag’s manufacturer, Annin Flagmakers of Roseland, New Jersey—and where Calabro RC’76 found and memorialized it in the corporate history book that Annin commissioned her to write.
Calabro is the founder and president of CorporateHistory.net and an award-winning writer and editor of corporate histories that are as vivid and compelling as page-turning titles found in bookstores.
Typically, corporate histories are accessible to employees and sometimes posted on company websites, but most are not available to the public. Nevertheless, Calabro considers them a potent, one-of-a-kind marketing tool that, among other benefits, lets companies humanize their products and services, differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace, and show how they’ve weathered ups and downs to endure over their competitors.
With her husband, Bernie Libster—a former creative director at Grey Advertising and now fellow corporate historian and company vice president—and a small team of freelancers, Calabro writes or edits every book herself for clients such as Clorox, Pep Boys, and Farmers Insurance. Calabro will typically interview 50 people or more for a given project and do behind-the-scenes, on-site reporting.
For the New England window and door company A.W. Hastings (now owned by Marvin), Calabro searched through Boston city directories from the mid-1800s to discover that the company was eight years older than initially thought. “That was a hard fact to swallow for the second owner of the company, who had revived it during World War II,” Calabro says. “What was fascinating was to figure out what happened in those eight missing years.”
In researching the history of The Clorox Company, Calabro found that it was an early example of a tech start-up financed by venture capitalists in 1913. The idea for bleach came from France and was considered a high-tech product at the time—something so new that it didn’t catch on with the American public at first. The company almost went under until William Murray and his wife, Annie, transformed the business into a successful brand.
Taking root as a writer
Calabro made history of her own by being part of the first class of women admitted to Rutgers College in 1972. (Appropriately for a historian, she donated her acceptance letter from Dean G.R. Bishop to the school’s archives.)
As a reporter for the Daily Targum, Calabro broke out of her comfort zone when she was asked to get a quote from then-President Edward Bloustein on a Sunday—and prevailed. “I was not raised to call people on Sundays, but the paper’s editors told me to call him,” she says. “I learned how to interview people and write on deadline and get my facts together quickly—good training for later life.”
Calabro began working in book publishing six months before graduation, including writing sales copy for catalogs, book jackets, and ads. “It was an exciting time to be in publishing. Stephen King was getting published and Roots had come out. I remember riding the subway and seeing every other person reading The World According to Garp or Gabriel García Márquez.”
After 10 years as a staffer at publishing companies, she left to freelance as a corporate communications and corporate history writer. Around the same time, she discovered a passion for writing young adult nonfiction. “I enjoyed writing it because young adults deserve powerful, precise storytelling in every genre,” she says. Her breakthrough book, The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party (Clarion Books, 1999), was chosen by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library for its middle school recommended reading list.
In 2004, she launched her own company, CorporateHistory.net. While finding an artifact like Lowery’s Iwo Jima photo is undoubtedly a thrilling part of writing corporate histories, Calabro’s biggest reward is the opportunity to talk to people who care deeply about their work.
“The popular picture is that people hate to work and can’t wait to get home. But so many people are proud and love what they do, even though it’s not glamorous,” she says. “That’s a satisfying part for me—to be able to convey the satisfaction and joy that people take in their work and that owners take in developing, growing, and changing their business.”
At noon on Thursday, April 14, Calabro will give an online presentation about the Donner Party as part of the Rutgers University–New Brunswick School of Arts and Sciences’ Scarlet Speakers from the Heart of New Brunswick series. Click here to learn more and register.