Mary Jane Doerr wins second State History Award for book about J. Will Callahan

The cover of Mary Jane Doerr's new book "The Songs of J. Will Callahan."

PETOSKEY — Longtime contributor to the Petoskey News-Review Mary Jane Doerr has won a 2022 State History Award for her book, “The Songs of J. Will Callahan, Tin Pan Alley’s Blind Lyricist.”

According to the website, the award is presented by the Historical Society of Michigan to the “individuals and organizations that have made outstanding contributions to the appreciation and understanding of Michigan history.”

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More:Mary Jane Doer, former News-Review contributor, publishes new book

This is Doerr’s second time winning this award. The first time was in 2010 for her book, “A History of Bay View.”

“I don't think that winning a second time lessens the thrill any, it maybe even heightens it,” she said. “It’s just exciting, but it’s been 12 years, so I had a chance to digest the other one.”

The sign in Bay View that got Mary Jane Doerr's attention and sparked her interest in knowing more about J. Will Callahan.

Doerr said she knew about Callahan because there was a sign down the street from her cottage that said "Smiles" — which sold more than 5 million records — was written there, but she actually decided to write the book after learning about Callahan while doing research for her first book.

For a while, she thought he only wrote one or two songs. When she learned he wrote more than 300 songs and sold one for $100,000 — the largest amount of money paid for a song at that point in time — she thought his story was worth telling.

“At that point, I decided, ‘Maybe I have a good subject here,’” she said

Mary Jane Doerr

When it comes to retelling history, Doerr said she thinks it is important for organizations like the Historical Society of Michigan to tell history so it doesn’t repeat itself.

“The old adage is ‘If you don't know where you live, you don't know where you're going,’ and ‘Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it,’ and I think that's true,” she said. “When they find out some of the extraordinary things that have happened here in Michigan, it gives them a respect for the past, what relatives have done, and what the previous citizens have accomplished.”

“I think it’s very important,” she added. “I’m lucky enough to be honored.”

The book was done in collaboration with multiple Northern Michigan residents, including her editor and the graphic designer that worked on the book.

“It was just awesome,” she said. “This was a Northern Michigan book.”

Doerr has worn many hats in her life. She served as a freelancer for the News-Review, beginning in 1979 and ending just a few years ago. She’s written two books about Northern Michigan history and has worked as a ski instructor for 40 years.

Those interested in reading “The Songs of J. Will Callahan, Tin Pan Alley’s Blind Lyricist" can purchase a copy from Doerr’s website at, from the Harbor Springs History Museum, The Terrace Inn in Bay View, McLean & Eaken Booksellers and Arlington Jewelers.

This article originally appeared on The Petoskey News-Review: Petoskey author wins State History Award for book about lyricist