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.
“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.
“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.