When Her Town Needed Fixing, This Single Mom Stepped Up

May 20, 2016
Originally published on May 20, 2016 2:33 pm

In the late 1940s, in the small, coal-mining township of Bethel, Pa., Marie Sayenga was raising two children — one named Bill — on a secretary's salary.

Bill Sayenga and his daughter, Ellen Riek, during their recent visit to StoryCorps, where he shared some wisdom learned from his mom.
StoryCorps

"Mama was widowed when I was 4 years old," retired teacher Bill Sayenga says to his daughter Ellen Riek during a recent visit to StoryCorps. "She had no education beyond high school. Raised my sister and me on almost no money. And bought a house so that her kids would have a proper place to grow up."

Marie was 5 feet and one-half inch tall. When she'd get mad at Bill and playfully swing at him, he could hold his arm out, his fingers against her forehead, and her arms would swing under his.

"And then, of course, she'd start to laugh, and she wasn't mad at me anymore," the 71-year-old says. "And that was who she was. I don't consider myself a weak person, but I'm puny next to Mama. And I have no idea where that strength came from."

Marie's small stature didn't keep her from seeing there was a need for improvement in her local government. Consequently, she decided to run for office.

Marie Sayenga retired after 24 years of elected service.
Courtesy of Louise Randolph

"I remember, the second time she ran for tax collector, we're in this small suburb of Pittsburgh, and one of the workers was a guy by the name of John," Bill recounts.

"John came to the door one Sunday morning, with all of my mother's opponent's posters from all around town — he'd torn them all down. And he was very proud of himself. He brought them to the door and smiled and showed Mama and said, 'Look! I took them all down.' She said, 'Take those back out and put every damn one of them back up. Bill, you go with him. Make sure he does it!' "

Marie would have rather lost the election than win by cheating. She went on to win that race and five others before retiring from office in 1978 after 24 years of service.

"Of all the people that I have met in my life, I respect her, and admire her more highly than anybody else that I have met," Bill says.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by John White.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps, sharing the stories of everyday people. Back in the late 1940s, Marie Sayenga was a single mother raising two children on a secretary's salary in Bethel, Pa., when she decided to run for local office. At StoryCorps, her son Bill sat with his daughter Ellen Riek to remember his mother's lasting influence.

BILL SAYENGA: Mama was widowed when I was 4 years old. She had no education beyond high school, raised my sister and me on almost no money and bought a house so that her kids would have a proper place to grow up. She was 5 foot tall and a half-inch. And when she'd get mad at me and playfully go to swing at me, I could hold my arm out, my fingers against her forehead, and her arms would swing under mine. And then, of course, she'd start to laugh. And she wasn't mad at me anymore. And that was who she was. I don't consider myself a weak person. But I'm puny next to Mama. And I have no idea where that strength came from.

ELLEN RIEK: So for your grandkids, what do you think it's important to know about Granny? And what do you hope they don't lose in this next generation?

SAYENGA: Integrity. And keep finding out more pieces of who you are. I remember the second time she ran for tax collector. We're in this small suburb of Pittsburgh. And one of the workers was a guy by the name of John (ph). And John came to the door one Sunday morning with all of my mother's opponent's posters from all around town. He'd torn them all down. And he was very proud of himself. He brought them to the door and smiled and showed Mama and said look, I took them all down.

She said take those back out and put every damn one of them back up. Bill, you go with him. Make sure he does it. She'd have lost that election rather than cheat even a little bit. That's Mama. Of all the people that I have met in my life, I respect her and admire her more highly than anybody else that I have met.

MONTAGNE: That's retired teacher Bill Sayenga remembering and his mother Marie Sayenga at StoryCorps. Marie went on to win that election and five more races before retiring from office in 1978. She served 24 years in office. Their story will be archived at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.